Last week when it was confirmed that, via a “nonprosecution agreement,” the government would forfeit $500 million from Google, because of some Canadian pharmacies, we were worried about the kind of message this sent to the tech community. While there are no specific safe harbors on secondary liability for criminal activity, the US judicial system generally does recognize the fact it’s wrong to blame third parties for actions they were not specifically responsible for. There are, of course, some safe harbor rules (mainly 512 in the DMCA and 230 in the CDA) which clearly protect third parties from liability in specific instances, but even outside of those safe harbors, the courts have recognized how wrong it is to blame third parties for the actions of others, even if they occur on that third party’s platform (for example: in the Tiffany/eBay case, where there are no safe harbors for trademark infringement, but eBay was still deemed not responsible).
What there is in criminal law is the “aiding and abetting” concept, which is what the government apparently was focusing on here. However, the bar to reach that is pretty high. Either way, others are beginning to recognize the chilling effect this effort by the Justice Department is going to have on the tech community. It notes that the government now seems to think it’s fair game to go after platform providers for aiding and abetting, even when the platform provider is just a tool being used. That’s pretty scary.
In fact, the article even suggests that the only reason the government agreed to the “settlement” route here — in which it only got the revenue back from Google, but no additional punitive award — was because it knew that the “aiding and abetting” claim was weak and might have trouble standing up in court. But, now, with this agreement in hand, the Justice Department can effectively shake down lots of other companies, with a “see what happened to Google?” message. That’s the sort of thing that’s likely to make many companies “agree to settle” and basically “forfeit” huge chunks of cash to the US government, rather than fight.
Whether or not you believe that people should be able to access Canadian pharmaceuticals is a reasonable point of debate. But I think it should be a pretty big concern to everyone that the federal government appears to be stretching secondary liability concepts drastically in going after Google here.