Jul 17, 2014 · 2 minutes

This is crazy.

A judge in France has ordered a food critic to change the headline of a scorchingly negative restaurant review because it was "too prominent" in Google search results. Il Giardino, the restaurant that caused critic Caroline Doudet so much gastronomical ire, complained to the court that because the review appeared fourth in Google's search results, its business was unfairly hurt. Well yeah, what's the job of a food critic if not to guide discerning tastes away from terrible establishments?

The title of the review was "The place to avoid in Cap-Ferret: Il Giardino," and the judge asked that the blogger remove the words "place to avoid." Instead, Doudet opted to delete the review entirely. "I removed it because technically, it's simpler than just modifying the title on its own," she told Eater. (I don't know what kind of crazy content management systems they use in France, but that seems a little suspect.)

Even if you consider Europe's record of policing Google, the ruling is absurd. The judge, who ordered Doudet to pay $3,400 in "procedural costs and damages and interest," has essentially made it a crime to be good at SEO or, more generally, to have influence. Can you imagine if a judge ordered a tech site like Pando to change a headline, not because it was libelous, but because a technology company's feelings got hurt?

"I find it really serious if we no longer have the freedom to write," Doudet told the outlet. "I don't see the point of criticism if it's only positive." No kidding.

Pando's Mark Ames wrote recently about the dangers of Google's monopoly over what we know. "If it’s not Google-able, it’s presumed to have been deleted from the historical record," Ames wrote. A few days later, I wrote about the problems that could arise if Google polices content based on moral, not legal, imperatives -- particularly when those imperatives are set by politically-influential "family values" groups that are disgusted by everything from homosexuality to Harry Potter.

But this ruling is a reminder that out-of-their-minds judges can also impact what information appears on Google. And Doudet's case is particularly problematic because it wasn't as if the judge asked Google to remove it from Google.fr -- at least then only the country where the judge resides would be affected by its removal. No, the judge asked that the headline be changed, which reflects a permanent change to the architecture of the largest information source in the world.

In any case, I doubt Il Giardino will attract many new patrons by its over-sensitivity to criticism. Not only is it bad form, but now people all over the world who had never even heard of the restaurant will identify it with Doudet's scathing review. Thanks to this ruling, Doudet may have done more harm to Il Giardino than she ever intended.

[photo by Tommaso Scarabino]