Doctors, Clinics Sue Over Harmful Reviews on Google Maps; Targeting Platform Instead of Posters a Novel Legal Move (Update 1)

Reuters file photo
A 3D-printed Google logo is seen in this illustration created on April 12, 2020.

About 60 doctors and medical corporation managers nationwide intended to file a class action lawsuit against Google LLC in Tokyo District Court as early as Thursday, claiming that their business rights were infringed by bad reviews posted on Google Maps, a mapping service provided by the company, it has been learned.

It is unprecedented in Japan for the parties affected by malicious posts to hold a platform ― rather than the posters themselves ― liable for damages.

Google Maps displays the names, contacts, addresses and other information on stores and facilities, and allows Google account holders to anonymously rate them on a five-point scale and post reviews.

Google Maps reviews and ratings are highly regarded for accessibly providing average ratings and details about a store. A private survey found that 99% of map service users choose Google Maps. On the other hand, some harmful aspects, such as malicious posts, have been pointed out.

The lawsuit is to be filed by doctors and medical corporations from areas nationwide, including Tokyo, Kanagawa, Aichi, Osaka and Fukuoka prefectures, whose medical institutions are listed on Google Maps. They have received such negative reviews as the doctor “is nuts,” or “I wasn’t treated as a human being,” or been given ratings of one out of five stars.

Because of doctor-patient confidentiality, it is almost impossible for doctors to post rebuttals. Some doctors were said to have made takedown requests to Google that appeared to go unheard.

There have been lawsuits seeking charges from those who have posted, but the process of identifying the poster is said to be costly and time-consuming for plaintiffs.

The latest case is unique in that the defendant is Google, which earns advertising revenue and other profits from providing the service. The plaintiffs claim that Google’s neglect in leaving malicious reviews unattended has created disadvantages for them, such as forcing them to respond to bad reviews, thus infringing their business rights. The plaintiffs are seeking compensation of ¥23,000 per plaintiff, totaling about ¥1.5 million.

Complaints about Google Maps have been received by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry’s Illegal Harmful Hotline, with the number increasing from 103 in fiscal 2020 to 180 in fiscal 2022.

“Despite being social infrastructure for everyone, Google Maps has not adequately addressed the problem, and people who are badly reviewed have kept suffering disadvantages,” plaintiffs’ attorney Yuichi Nakazawa said. “The platform that created a venue for reviews must be held liable in order to eliminate the damage.”

Google told The Yomiuri Shimbun, “We are working to reduce inaccurate and misleading content, and removing fraudulent reviews,” but it would “refrain from commenting” on the lawsuit.