Grace Millane was murdered in Auckland in December 2018.

Google U-turns, apologises after standoff over Grace Millane suppression breach

The online giant has written to the NZ minister of justice, Andrew Little, saying it will immediately suspend the automated service that breached a court order

In December 2018, when the Spinoff broke the news that Google had breached a New Zealand court suppression order in the case of Grace Millane, the internet giant’s first response was to say, “we wouldn’t comment on specifics”.

This week, as Justice Minister Andrew Little expressed his frustration at Google’s failure to take action to address the systems that had led to it emailing people with the suppressed name of the man accused of killing the backpacker, its comment was again succinct.

“Google respects New Zealand law and understands the sensitivity around this issue,” it said. “When we receive valid court orders, including suppression orders, we review and respond appropriately.” In effect: it’s on you, not us, to ensure the law is obeyed.

Little’s furious response, which included a broadside published yesterday morning by the Spinoff, in which he pledged to explore a range of retaliatory options, has caused a rethink, however, in the form of a lengthy apologetic letter and an assurance that it had now suspended the email service that caused the breach of a court order.

In the letter to the justice minister (printed in full below), Google’s New Zealand based government lobbyist Ross Young apologised for a “miscommunication” in its earlier correspondence. He said that the company had taken a number of steps following the breach, after which it had seen no similar recurrence.

He went on to say, however, that “in light of the concerns you expressed this week, Google has also suspended Google Trends emails about searches trending in New Zealand. This means that people will no longer receive emails on any trending searches for New Zealand and provides even further assurance against any recurrence.”

Little welcomed what he called a “change of heart”.

In a statement he called it a “responsible approach”, adding: “Work on how suppression orders will be upheld in the digital age will continue. I look forward to constructive engagement with Google and other multinational tech corporations on long term solutions.”

In his op-ed for the Spinoff yesterday, Little pulled no punches, accusing Google of “recklessness”.

He wrote: “Frankly, their size, far from meaning they can’t fix an obvious risk to justice systems, means they are big enough to do better… I would be failing in my duty if, as a minister of justice in a small country, I threw in the towel and decided nothing could be done in the face of a giant international corporation thinking it could ride roughshod over one of the most important principles of criminal justice.”

The capitulation comes as the behemoths of the global internet, Google and Facebook above all, come under increasing pressure from governments around the world over their adherence to nation-states’ laws and their broader impact on democracy.

In the letter, Young made specific reference to the Christchurch Call, the pact signed by governments and technology companies following the mosque attacks in Christchurch which were livestreamed on Facebook and emerged out out of an extreme-right culture that flourished online.

Young said Google wished “to build on the constructive spirit that emerged from our work with the New Zealand government on the Call for Action on Christchurch”.


The letter from Google:

Tēnā Koe Minister Little

Google Trends Emails

I want to apologise for the miscommunication on Tuesday. I did not mean to convey that Google does not take this issue seriously. We trust this letter provides more detail, in relation to which I have liaised with my colleagues at Google LLC (Google)/

When we met in December last year we confirmed our respect for New Zealand law and do so again here. We understand the need to protect the right to a fair trial and acknowledge that this is a fundamental part of the legal system.

When we met we advised that fewer than 200 New Zealand subscribers had received an email from Google Trends, which included links to international media reports. We confirmed that upon being made aware of the issue Google took action and prevented the accused’s name from being included in future Trends Alert emails in New Zealand.

As part of our respect for New Zealand laws, we have worked for many years with law enforcement authorities. Google has provided special confidential forms to New Zealand law enforcement authorities to use to submit legal removal and other requests. Google also has a general webform in place where people can submit Court Orders, including suppression orders. This form is publicly available. By using these tools Google is able to act quickly on court orders and other removal requests it receives.

In relation to the case in question, Google received the order from Defence Counsel four days after it was made and after the Trends email had been sent. Once Google received the order it took immediate action to prevent any recurrence.

At our meeting we committed to reviewing our systems and to work with the Courts and Police to help them use the online forms.

Since that time Google:

  • examined its subscriber email systems, including daily subscriber and trending alerts, in relation to Google Trends.
  • put in place procedures to reduce the opportunity for similar subscriber emails to be sent in the future.
  • shared the webform with key stakeholders including the Courts, Netsafe and the Department of Internal Affairs, so that they can provide timely notification of new orders as and when they are made. We have also scheduled a meeting with the Police to reintroduce them to the online forms and explore further ways we may assist.

Following those steps we have not seen any further recurrence of this issue. However, in light of the concerns you expressed this week, Google has also suspended Google Trends emails about searches trending in New Zealand. This means that people will no longer receive emails on any trending searches for New Zealand and provides even further assurance against any recurrence.

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In conclusion, we would like to build on the constructive spirit that emerged from our work with the New Zealand government on the Call for Action on Christchurch. We hope that the measures set out in this letter address your concerns. However, please let us know if you have any questions or would appreciate further clarification.

Nga mihi nui

Ross Young

Government Affairs and Public Policy


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