Google ordered to muzzle defamatory autocompletes by German court

Google ordered to muzzle defamatory autocompletes by German court

Summary: Germany's federal court has forced Google to respond to instances where autocomplete produces defamatory suggested search terms.

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TOPICS: Google, EU
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In Germany Google will have to prevent autocomplete from suggesting certain searches if it becomes aware they are defamatory, the German federal court has ruled.

A cosmetics and nutritional supplements company and its CEO, only identified as RS, has won an injunction from the court which prevents Google from suggesting two search terms that are defamatory.

The complainant claimed that when his name was searched on Google from May 2010, the site's autocomplete feature suggested additional terms "RS (full name) Scientology" and "RS (full name) scam", despite no evidence of a connection between him and the terms.

The court ruled on Tuesday that Google must block these particular suggestions because they implied a "factual connection" where there was none, violating the complainant's personal rights.

Google itself was not held liable for violating the plaintiff's rights; however, it had not taken sufficient precautions to prevent the data generated by the software searches from violating third party's rights, according to the court.

Google will not have to regularly vet suggestions that a,utocomplete makes, but it will need to assign a person who is responsible for preventing similar violations in the future. The court also noted the operator "is generally responsible only when it becomes aware of the unlawful violation of personal rights".

A Google spokesman said the company was "disappointed with the decision from the German supreme court".

"We believe that Google should not be held liable for terms that appear in autocomplete as these are predicted by computer algorithms based on searches from previous users, not by Google itself. We are waiting for the written grounds to review the decision in detail."

The verdict overturns a decision last year by a regional court, which will now have to reexamine the case and determine whether damages can be awarded, according to Associated Press.

The decision may also have implications for the defamation suit that Germany's former first lady Bettina Wulff filed against Google in a Hamburg district court last year.

Wulff wants Google to prevent autocomplete from delivering a host of damaging search terms. Google however has refused, claiming the terms are "the algorithmic result of several objective factors, including the popularity of search terms", German newspaper Der Spiegel reported last year

Topics: Google, EU

Liam Tung

About Liam Tung

Liam Tung is an Australian business technology journalist living a few too many Swedish miles north of Stockholm for his liking. He gained a bachelors degree in economics and arts (cultural studies) at Sydney's Macquarie University, but hacked (without Norse or malicious code for that matter) his way into a career as an enterprise tech, security and telecommunications journalist with ZDNet Australia. These days Liam is a full time freelance technology journalist who writes for several publications.

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8 comments
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  • S.E.T.H, The Matrix,V.I.K.I., and HAL 9000

    algorithms are built my men, geeks must provide tweaks to make machines understand human implications.

    silly goog blames the frankenstein and not itself
    lokanadam@...
    • Erm...

      I think you mean Google are blaming the monster and not themselves... In this case Google are (Dr.) Frankenstein. ;-)
      wright_is
  • Censorship

    This is censorship, plain and simple. If I'm worried about the potential dangers of dingos, for instance, and I type "A dingo ate..." it is valuable to me that "A dingo ate my baby" appear in the auto-complete suggestions, even if some court has determined the phrase to be defamatory to dingos. It's up to me to click the link and read the articles and decide whether they are plausible or not. It should not be up to a court to preemptively determine that the phrase "A dingo ate my baby" is defamatory of dingos and should be stricken from Google's auto-complete suggestions even before I get to see it.

    Of course, the above example is a silly one, for purposes of illustration, but you can see how it might apply to searches for "Samsung refuses... to honor its warranty" or "Obama was born... in Kenya." Both statements may be false, and even defamatory, but it should not be up to a court to bar me from seeing them.
    dsf3g
    • It doesn't...

      bar the links from being seen. It bars the words "to honor warranty" being suggested as autocomplete text in the search bar, when you type "Samsung refuses", using your example.

      If you really want to search for that, you can, the court isn't stopping you. You just have to fill out the complete search term yourself.

      I feel it is a bit silly, but there again, if my name appeared along with aspersions to my sexual orientation and intelligence when I started typing my it into the search box, I wouldn't be very happy with Google.
      wright_is
    • Censorship?

      Can you call it censorship when you know that what is said isn't true? [Or at least nothing to back it up.]
      Would it be right to say that Google's Chrome OS controls 99% of the OS markey? [in their dreams!]
      Or Mitt Romney sleeps with donkeys in his bed. [Never know!]
      Gisabun
  • If You Can't Say Something Nice...

    Problems arise in the world of multiple connotations and people with shared names and a shady past. Pardon me if I associate Sgt. Schultz's 'I know nothing' that should not be known with German justice.
    jnffarrell
  • Google "failure"

    Reminds me of the time when entering "failure" into Google brought up George W. Bush...
    johnzbesko@...
  • in other news

    40 yr old man robs bank, German court throws parents in jail
    frylock