Google’s autocomplete under fire over ‘defamatory’ searches

Google’s autocomplete function, which has yielded some eye-opening insights into the most commonly searched word
combinations (the first suggestion that pops up when you type ‘Vladimir Putin r’ is ‘Vladimir Putin riding a bear’, ahead of ‘Vladimir Putin Russia’ – which the strongman president might actually be quite pleased about), has come under fire again.

A German federal court has told Google to make sure that search terms generated by autocomplete are not offensive or defamatory, after an unnamed businessman launched a legal action when linked him with ‘scientology’ and ‘fraud’.

Where is Chuck Norris? A lot of web users are feeling lucky


The search engine has been told the remove defamatory word combinations when it has been notified of them, as the person’s privacy would be violated if the associations listed by autocomplete were untrue, the German court said this week.

Although this doesn’t mean Google has to censor its entire autocomplete index, it is responsible for removing terms when “it gets notice of the unlawful violation of personal rights”, the court ruled.

Google has previously argued that it has no control over the combinations of words generated by autocomplete, which predicts what a person is searching for, because these are automatically created depending on how often people look for that combination of keywords.

Given that autocomplete relies on what is most commonly searched for across the web, and is therefore a reflection of what people are interested in, it’s a shame that the court took this approach.

After all, autocomplete simply shows online search trends, and the court seems to be going to extremes to clamp down on what happens to be piquing people’s interests.

Other people who have taken umbrage at autocomplete are Bettina Wulff, wife of former German president Christian Wulff, who sued Google because autocomplete suggested words linking her to escort services – she denies ever working as a prostitute.

Germany isn’t the only country to have ruled against Google’s autocomplete, which was first introduced in 2009.

Google was ordered to disable part of its autocomplete function in Japan in March 2012, after an unidentified man took the search giant to court over concerns that typing in his name linked him with crimes he was not involved with, and had caused “irreversible damage” to the man’s reputation.

The Japanese court issued a temporary injuction to have the man’s name delinked from autocomplete suggestions, which Google did not follow.

But last month, the same court told Google it must de-link words in its autocomplete function to prevent the search engine suggesting criminal acts when users type one man’s name. As Google is based in America, though, it can’t be forced to make any changes to its algorithm by the foreign court.

Again, I’m surprised the courts are taking such a hard stance on autocomplete. And without the function, we’d never have known that the third most common suggestion when typing in ‘Where is chu’ was ‘Where is Chuck Norris I’m feeling lucky’, or that so many people were pondering whether a banana was a herb. Like I said, eye-opening insights.

© Melanie Hall 2017