A Prank Too Far: Is Google Liable for the Fallout of an Ill-Conceived Prank?

Google is committed to their pranks, coming up with inventive April Fools jokes every year. Just last year they had twelve different pranks running, from playing Pacman in Google Maps to suggesting the song Sandstorm for nearly every music video on YouTube.  In 2011, Google announced that all their products would default to the Comic Sans font.  They also introduced a Meow Me Now app, which would locate kittens in the user’s vicinity.  This year, Google outdid themselves, and it came back to bite them.

As one of their many 2016 pranks, Google added a “Send + Drop Mic” button to Gmail. The button was an orange affair that read “Send +” then showed an animation of a small hand dropping a microphone.  It replaced the usual “Send and Archive” button and was positioned immediately next to the “Send” button.  When clicked, the button added a gif of a Minion from the movie series Despicable Me dropping a microphone and muted the thread—preventing the user from seeing any further replies. Mic Drop

Even though the button provided a pop-up warning the user what would happen if they sent their email in this manner when you scrolled over it, complaints of issues stemming from the confusingly position of the feature starting rolling in almost immediately after the feature rolled out. A bug in the feature also made the normal send button sometimes function as if the user had clicked the “Send + Drop Mic” button.  Several users reported losing job opportunities, while others complained that the feature had actually cost them their job.

The feature was only up for 12 hours before Google discontinued it and issued an apology for any inconvenience it had created. Google has also stated that they are working to undo the damage by bringing back all replies to “mic dropped” email threads.

Given that it was April Fools’ Day, everything posted on the internet is suspect. There is a real possibility that the users complaining of lost jobs and job opportunities were playing a prank of their own or simply fabricating their stories.  However, the situation raises the question, could Google be liable for the jobs and jobs opportunities lost due to their prank?

Negligent Dropping of Microphones

Negligence is one of the most common civil causes of action. While the exact requirements for negligence vary slightly state-to-state, the accusing party generally needs to establish five things:

  • Duty – That the accused had a duty. You are always under a duty to act with the care of a reasonable person.
  • Breach of Duty – The accused has failed to act in accordance with their duty to another.         
  • Cause in Fact But for the act of the accused, the accuser would not have suffered injury.
  • Proximate Cause A reasonable person could have foreseen the damages of the accuser arising out of their act.
  • Damages The accuser has suffered some loss as a result of the accused’s negligent act.

Where people have lost their job or a job opportunity, their lost wages certainly represent damages. This just leaves the first four elements to figure out.

So did Google fail to act with the care of a reasonable person in their design and implementation of their “Drop the Mic” feature? This is a fairly fact specific determination, but we can look at what we know.  The design of the feature itself included a bug which made otherwise normal use of Gmail send the “Drop the Mic” version of that email.  In order to show whether Google acted with proper care, we would need to see if they knew about the bug prior to release.  Their apology statement certainly implies that they had no knowledge of the bug.  There could be a situation where the feature was created and released in such a slapdash manner that they should have expected substantial issues with the feature.  However, there is no evidence of this at this point and it seems fairly unlikely from a software company as established as Google.

So if the bug in the feature isn’t a breach of duty, is the implementation of the feature? There is an argument that a reasonable person would not have placed the “Drop Mic” button right next to the “send button” for the very reasons that occurred- users would click on the wrong button.  However, the button was of a bright color and looked substantially different from the normal “Send and Archive” button.

What’s more, the button created a pop-up explaining its function when the cursor scrolled over it. This being said, many users complained that they could only see the pop-up right before they clicked the “Drop the Mic” button.  Google has itself stated that they feel they should have included a confirmation pop-up that required a second click before “dropping the mic.”  The facts here are fairly tenuous, but there is a credible argument that Google’s implementation of their April Fools’ joke breached the duty of reasonable care.  This being said, it would be a heck of an uphill battle to prove it.

So with duty and breach established, sort of, let’s look to causation. Could a plaintiff show that but-for the “Drop the Mic” feature they would not have lost their job?  One of the very few instances of somebody losing their job over Google’s prank is a writer who claims he accidentally clicked the “Drop the Mic” button when sending his articles to his editor.  Due to the mute function, the writer states that he never received the suggested edits and missed his deadline.  His editor also took offense to the slight to her suggestions of the minion mic drop and ultimately fired him.

In a situation such as that of the writer, it seems likely that but-for the confusing positioning of the “Drop the Mic” button he would not have lost his job.

There is a real chance that Google may be vulnerable to a negligence lawsuit if the facts available are true and complete. However, not only may there be facts we do not know, the case is already fairly tenuous as to whether Google has actually breached a duty.  There is a real chance that Google may be vulnerable to a lawsuit, however it’s a slim chance at best.

Protecting Your Business

Google has opened themselves up to potential lawsuits through what seemed to be a fun prank. Their danger is at best moderate, but wherever possible, it’s best to avoid such danger all together.  When preparing to offer a product or service, consider the potential implications of the use of that product or service.  If you are unsure whether you might be placing yourself in a lawsuit’s crosshairs, consult a lawyer.  You don’t want to end up in a courtroom with a Judge dropping the mic.

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