In the weeks since British backpacker Grace Millane, 21, went missing while on vacation in New Zealand, a local story has gone round the world—and all the way back again. Millane’s disappearance first made international headlines in early December, compounded by the later discovery of her body on Sunday (Dec. 8). Now, a 26-year-old New Zealand man has been charged with her murder and is awaiting trial. Google may be breaking New Zealand law by disseminating his name to New Zealanders via email.
In the New Zealand courts system, victims and the accused alike regularly have their names suppressed, making it illegal to publish their name in newspapers, online, or anywhere else. Generally, the suppression isn’t permanent—instead, it’s in place ahead of or during a trial to protect people not yet proven guilty. It is also thought to ensure a fairer trial, making jury prejudice from media coverage less likely and protecting the course of justice. This case may not come to trial for as much as a year.
While New Zealand news organizations are well-versed in upholding the law, international news organizations, including the Daily Mail, the Irish Independent, and many others, ignored it and published the name of the man accused of the murder. After calls from New Zealand politician Andrew Little, however, they geoblocked their stories, making them inaccessible to New Zealand readers.
But Google got tangled up in the issue in a way that is more difficult to undo. According to reports from New Zealand publication The Spinoff, the company included the man’s name in the subject line of a round-up email of New Zealand’s Google trends, with links to stories identifying him as the murder-accused. These were then sent to all New Zealand subscribers to the email early on Tuesday morning (Dec. 11).
Whether this email meets the legal standard for publication isn’t clear, though the format makes it all but impossible for Google to retract it. Ordinarily, users can request that Google block or remove run-of-the-mill search results that may violate the law. But targeted emails can hardly be geoblocked, especially retroactively.
In an email, a Google spokesperson told that they had been unaware of the court order. “When we receive valid court orders, including suppression orders, we review and respond appropriately,” they said. “In this case, we didn’t receive an order to take action. We are looking for ways to better ensure courts have the tools to quickly and easily provide these orders to us in the future.”
In general, however, Google should be well-versed in cooperating with individual countries’ laws, as it does with EU regulations about the right to be forgotten.
This story has been updated to include a comment from a Google spokesperson.