SAN FRANCISCO -- Blackmoney.com editor John William Templeton has filed a $51 million federal lawsuit against Amazon and Google for sending search queries on his name to an obscure 1980 paper with several authors, one named David Templeton Easter for at least four years.
The practice violated the unfair and deceptive practices provisions of the Federal Trade Commission Act, including a consent agreement that Google accepted in 2011 and 2012, according to the plaintiff, because it used Templeton's stature to entice consumers to give data to the tech behemoths without their knowledge with false advertisements about his books.
Filed in the northern district of California, U.S. District Court, the case (19-cv-02894-SK) also includes a Washington state-based company, Thriftbooks LLC, which also had paid listings in Google search claiming to sell "all John William Templeton books" without having access to any of them.
In 2002, Templeton received the Library Laureate Award from S.F. Public Library for his four-volume Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, Vols. 1-4, used as a textbook in California schools and colleges since 1991. It garnered the 2011 Circle 7 Award from KGO-7. During its 25th anniversary, he was the speaker for Black History Month at San Francisco City Hall and was featured in five 30-second spots daily on NBC Bay Area during February. Sales of the book support the deployment of the 6,000 site California African-American Freedom Trail. He is also co-founder of the 16th National Black Business Month each August and the eighth annual Black Food Month each March and was bicentennial speaker for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass at the African-American Civil War Museum last year.
A 2017 column in The Hill--"Trump drops mother of all bombs on libraries" got 67,000 shares but doesn't show up in search engine queries on Templeton's name, an example of how search advertising has overwhelmed "natural search," in contravention of the FTC's 2002 Search Engine Guidance.
Templeton also accuses the companies of violating the Civil Rights Act of 1871, commonly known as the Anti-Ku Klux Klan Act, by conspiring to deprive him of the freedom of the press and interfering with his religious practice. It is an important case in the scrutiny of racial discrimination in artificial intelligence, particularly by companies with racially discriminatory workforces.
"The Office of Special Counsel found that African-Americans have been targeted with deceptive online practices, particularly by foreign intelligence, but no one is being held accountable at the network platforms," says Templeton, who first asked Amazon to cease and desist in 2015 before taking the matter to the San Francisco district attorney in 2016.
A book publisher since 1984, Templeton also publishes an online financial newspaper blackmoney.com. A television producer since 1978, he has a business show Money on the Table on KMTP-Channel 32 public station and presents ReUNION: Education-Arts-Heritage television network for school children with daily programs on African-American history and current affairs.
"This ordeal over seven years underscores the importance of strong enforcement of the California Online Privacy Act, which takes full effect Jan. 1, 2020," said Templeton. "Every business owner and every person is at risk for identity theft and data manipulation."
The executive editor of blackmoney.com has prevailed over motions to dismiss by Amazon and Google in a case that tests whether individuals have control of their own names.
"It's like Kunte Kinte refusing to be called Toby," notes John William Templeton, plaintiff in John William Templeton v. Amazon, Google, Jeffrey P. Bezos, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Sundar Pichai (CSM18-859150 in San Francisco Superior Court.)
Filed in October 2018, Templeton alleges violations of the California right of publicity law, the false advertising law, the anti-phishing law and unfair business practices. He had earlier filed a complaint with the San Francisco District Attorney.
As early as 2012, Amazon began purchasing search engine advertising on Google and other search engines asserting that it owned the distribution rights to all of Templeton's book published since 1984, but when consumers clicked on the link they were told the books were "out of print." When the plaintiff discovered the misinformation in 2015, he called and eventually reached the general counsel and corporate secretary of Amazon. Then, in retaliation, the listing was changed to send consumers to a 1980 free paper in which one of the authors had the middle name Templeton. After the suit was filed, the listing suddenly changed, but still continues to divert consumers away from his 90 books.
Google then began creating pages in Google Books for each of Templeton's titles to divert away from his 16 web sites, the only place where his books can be purchased since 1996.
The enormous significance of the issue is demonstrated by the report of the Special Counsel on Russian election meddling in which indictments were filed against foreign intelligence services for posting false web sites to influence African-American voters. During Reconstruction, similar disparagement was used to incite violence against African-Americans, a phenomenon which has re-emerged in recent years. The ability of African-Americans to tell their own story is the founding motto of the black press since 1827 -- "We wish to plead our own cause."
The European Union has sanctioned Google for favoring its own site and advertisers in search results. Ironically, the founders wrote in an academic paper in 1998 that advertiser supported search results would favor the advertiser. However, now the company is the leader in online advertising. A research study shows that Amazon has had a practice of buying search terms as an anti-competitive step to divert traffic from competitors, causing many brick and mortar companies to go out of business.