Is Google responsible for the suggestions of its “autocomplete” search tool?
The company says no, but courts in two countries have suggested otherwise, potentially creating another legal and technical challenge for the search giant.
A Hong Kong court Tuesday ruled that Albert Yeung Sau-shing, chairman of the Emperor Group conglomerate, can sue Google for defamation because “autocomplete” suggests searches linking him to organized crime.
Entering “albert yeung” in the Google search box, in either English or Chinese, brings up suggested searches like “albert yeung triad” a reference to a Chinese criminal organization.
Google argued that it doesn’t “publish” the autocomplete suggestions, which are based on prior searches by users, and that the company is merely a “passive facilitator” of those results. Requiring search engines to review and edit search suggestions threatens “the entire basis of the Internet,” Google argued.
But High Court Judge Marlene Ng rejected that argument, writing that Google’s “algorithms are synthesizing and reconstituting” information from users and then “publishing them as suggestions.” The judge said “Google Search does not simply convey information,” but provides information “distilled pursuant to artificial intelligence set up by Google.”
In a similar case in Germany last year, that country’s highest civil court said that once Google has been notified that libelous words are appended to a person’s name by autocomplete, it has a responsibility to block them. The case was brought by the founder and CEO of a nutritional supplements company, who said “scientology” and “scam” were appended to suggested searches for his name.
The autocomplete function appears before a user completes a search, but Google also is under pressure to edit its search results in parts of the world.
The search company has begun removing certain search results in Europe after the continent’s top court established a “right to be forgotten” in May that gives individuals a right to demand the erasure of links to information about them that is old or irrelevant.
Hong Kong’s top privacy regulator, Allen Chiang Yam-wang, said in a June blog postpublished in June that he expects similar cases to be heard in Canada and Japan. He suggested that Google should apply the right to be forgotten globally.
In Canada, Google has appealed a June ruling that would require the company to remove search results worldwide.