A consumer searching online for information about an insurance company should not be barred from seeing ads from that company's competitors, Public Citizen said today in a "friend of the court" brief involving a lawsuit filed by Government Employees Insurance Company (GEICO).

GEICO has filed suit against two major Internet search engine operators, Google Inc. and Overture Services Inc., in an effort to suppress advertising by competing insurance companies and online insurance brokers.

GEICO is claiming trademark infringement, alleging that the search engine operators violate trademark rights by allowing other insurance companies to advertise to consumers who display an interest in obtaining information relating in some way to GEICO by using the registered trademark "GEICO" as a search term.

In its amicus brief, Public Citizen asked the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia to reject the lawsuit against Google and Overture, contending that there is nothing about "keyword" advertising that inherently violates trademark laws. Trademark law protects against the misuse of a mark to create confusion about whether particular goods and services emanate from the trademark holder.

"In this case, GEICO's assumption that any member of the public using the term 'GEICO' must be searching for the official company Web site is preposterous," said Paul Levy, the Public Citizen attorney who wrote the amicus brief.

"The user may be looking for information about the trademark, or about the trademark holder. He may be looking for historical information. The user may have a grievance about the trademarked item and want more information about other similar grievances."

Although its principal concern is to protect consumers who want to use non-commercial web sites to speak about corporations, Public Citizen is also interested in protecting the free speech rights of commercial entities, thus enabling companies to make information more available to consumers and increasing consumer choices while fostering competitive pressures that reduce product prices.

"The Internet provides a tremendous opportunity for ordinary citizens to express their views, and to have them heard, and by the same token, it provides an opportunity for consumers to obtain information that they may need to protect their economic and political interests," Levy said. "It is vitally important that the legal rules governing use of the Internet be crafted to provide a maximum opportunity for the free exchange of information."