Google Inc. v. Equustek Solutions Inc., 2017 SCC 34 (Injunctions — Interlocutory injunction — Non party)
On appeal from a judgment of the British Columbia Court of Appeal (2015 BCCA 265) affirming a decision of Fenlon J. (2014 BCSC 1063).
E is a small technology company in British Columbia that launched an action against D. E claimed that D, while acting as a distributor of E’s products, began to re‑label one of the products and pass it off as its own. D also acquired confidential information and trade secrets belonging to E, using them to design and manufacture a competing product. D filed statements of defence disputing E’s claims, but eventually abandoned the proceedings and left the province. Some of D’s statements of defence were subsequently struck.
Despite court orders prohibiting the sale of inventory and the use of E’s intellectual property, D continues to carry on its business from an unknown location, selling its impugned product on its websites to customers all over the world. E approached Google and requested that it de‑index D’s websites. Google refused. E then brought court proceedings, seeking an order requiring Google to do so. Google asked E to obtain a court order prohibiting D from carrying on business on the Internet saying it would comply with such an order by removing specific webpages.
An injunction was issued by the Supreme Court of British Columbia ordering D to cease operating or carrying on business through any website. Between December 2012 and January 2013, Google advised E that it had de‑indexed 345 specific webpages associated with D. It did not, however, de‑index all of D’s websites. De‑indexing webpages but not entire websites proved to be ineffective since D simply moved the objectionable content to new pages within its websites, circumventing the court orders. Moreover, Google had limited the de‑indexing to searches conducted on google.ca. E therefore obtained an interlocutory injunction to enjoin Google from displaying any part of D’s websites on any of its search results worldwide. The Court of Appeal for British Columbia dismissed Google’s appeal.
Held (7-2): The appeal is dismissed and the worldwide interlocutory injunction against Google is upheld.
Per McLachlin C.J. and Abella, Moldaver, Karakatsanis, Wagner, Gascon and Brown JJ.:
The issue is whether Google can be ordered, pending a trial, to globally de‑index D’s websites which, in breach of several court orders, is using those websites to unlawfully sell the intellectual property of another company.
The decision to grant an interlocutory injunction is a discretionary one and entitled to a high degree of deference. Interlocutory injunctions are equitable remedies that seek to ensure that the subject matter of the litigation will be preserved so that effective relief will be available when the case is ultimately heard on the merits. Their character as “interlocutory” is not dependent on their duration pending trial. Ultimately, the question is whether granting the injunction is just and equitable in the circumstances of the case.
The test for determining whether the court should exercise its discretion to grant an interlocutory injunction against Google has been met in this case: there is a serious issue to be tried; E is suffering irreparable harm as a result of D’s ongoing sale of its competing product through the Internet; and the balance of convenience is in favour of granting the order sought.
Google does not dispute that there is a serious claim, or that E is suffering irreparable harm which it is inadvertently facilitating through its search engine. Nor does it suggest that it would be inconvenienced in any material way, or would incur any significant expense, in de‑indexing D’s websites. Its arguments are that the injunction is not necessary to prevent irreparable harm to E and is not effective; that as a non‑party it should be immune from the injunction; that there is no necessity for the extraterritorial reach of the order; and that there are freedom of expression concerns that should have tipped the balance against granting the order.
Injunctive relief can be ordered against someone who is not a party to the underlying lawsuit. When non‑parties are so involved in the wrongful acts of others that they facilitate the harm, even if they themselves are not guilty of wrongdoing, they can be subject to interlocutory injunctions. It is common ground that D was unable to carry on business in a commercially viable way without its websites appearing on Google. The injunction in this case flows from the necessity of Google’s assistance to prevent the facilitation of D’s ability to defy court orders and do irreparable harm to E. Without the injunctive relief, it was clear that Google would continue to facilitate that ongoing harm.
Where it is necessary to ensure the injunction’s effectiveness, a court can grant an injunction enjoining conduct anywhere in the world. The problem in this case is occurring online and globally. The Internet has no borders — its natural habitat is global. The only way to ensure that the interlocutory injunction attained its objective was to have it apply where Google operates — globally. If the injunction were restricted to Canada alone or to google.ca, the remedy would be deprived of its intended ability to prevent irreparable harm, since purchasers outside Canada could easily continue purchasing from D’s websites, and Canadian purchasers could find D’s websites even if those websites were de‑indexed on google.ca.
Google’s argument that a global injunction violates international comity because it is possible that the order could not have been obtained in a foreign jurisdiction, or that to comply with it would result in Google violating the laws of that jurisdiction, is theoretical. If Google has evidence that complying with such an injunction would require it to violate the laws of another jurisdiction, including interfering with freedom of expression, it is always free to apply to the British Columbia courts to vary the interlocutory order accordingly. To date, Google has made no such application. In the absence of an evidentiary foundation, and given Google’s right to seek a rectifying order, it is not equitable to deny E the extraterritorial scope it needs to make the remedy effective, or even to put the onus on it to demonstrate, country by country, where such an order is legally permissible.
D and its representatives have ignored all previous court orders made against them, have left British Columbia, and continue to operate their business from unknown locations outside Canada. E has made efforts to locate D with limited success. D is only able to survive — at the expense of E’s survival — on Google’s search engine which directs potential customers to D’s websites. This makes Google the determinative player in allowing the harm to occur. On balance, since the world‑wide injunction is the only effective way to mitigate the harm to E pending the trial, the only way, in fact, to preserve E itself pending the resolution of the underlying litigation, and since any countervailing harm to Google is minimal to non‑existent, the interlocutory injunction should be upheld.
Per Côté and Rowe JJ. (dissenting):
While the court had jurisdiction to issue the injunctive order against Google, it should have refrained from doing so. Numerous factors affecting the grant of an injunction strongly favour judicial restraint in this case.
First, the Google Order in effect amounts to a final determination of the action because it removes any potential benefit from proceeding to trial. In its original underlying claim, E sought injunctions modifying the way D carries out its website business. E has been given more injunctive relief than it sought in its originating claim, including requiring D to cease website business altogether. Little incentive remains for E to return to court to seek a lesser injunctive remedy. This is evidenced by E’s choice to not seek default judgment during the roughly five years which have passed since it was given leave to do so. The Google Order provides E with more equitable relief than it sought against D and gives E an additional remedy that is final in nature. The order against Google, while interlocutory in form, is final in effect. The test for interlocutory injunctions does not apply to an order that is effectively final. In these circumstances, an extensive review of the merits of this case was therefore required but was not carried out by the court below, contrary to caselaw. The Google Order does not meet the test for a permanent injunction. Although E’s claims were supported by a good prima facie case, it was not established that D designed and sold counterfeit versions of E’s product, or that this resulted in trademark infringement and unlawful appropriation of trade secrets.
Second, Google is a non‑party to the proceedings between E and D. E alleged that Google’s search engine was facilitating D’s ongoing breach by leading customers to D’s websites. However, the prior order that required D to cease carrying on business through any website was breached as soon as D established a website to conduct its business, regardless of how visible that website might be through Google searches. Google did not aid or abet the doing of the prohibited act.
Third, the Google Order is mandatory and requires ongoing modification and supervision because D is launching new websites to replace de‑listed ones. Courts should avoid granting injunctions that require such cumbersome court‑supervised updating.
Furthermore, the Google Order has not been shown to be effective in making D cease operating or carrying on business through any website. Moreover, the Google Order does not assist E in modifying D’s websites, as E sought in its originating claim for injunctive relief. The most that can be said is the Google Order might reduce the harm to E. But it has not been shown that the Google Order is effective in doing so. D’s websites can be found using other search engines, links from other sites, bookmarks, email, social media, printed material, word‑of‑mouth, or other indirect means. D’s websites are open for business on the Internet whether Google searches list them or not.
Finally, there are alternative remedies available to E. E sought a world‑wide Mareva injunction to freeze D’s assets in France, but the Court of Appeal for British Columbia urged E to pursue a remedy in French courts. There is no reason why E cannot do what the Court of Appeal urged it to do. E could also pursue injunctive relief against the ISP providers. In addition, E could initiate contempt proceedings in France or in any other jurisdiction with a link to the illegal websites. Therefore, the Google Order ought not to have been granted.
Reasons for judgment: Abella J. (McLachlin C.J. and Moldaver, Karakatsanis, Wagner, Gascon and Brown JJ. concurring)
Joint Dissenting Reasons: Côté and Rowe JJ.
Neutral Citation: 2017 SCC 34
Docket Number: 36602