Google's Autocomplete Dilemma: Every Concession Makes It Easier For The Next Person To Complain

from the infringement-vs.-defamation dept

Back when Google decided to be the arbiter of what words were strictly for infringement in its previously useful autocomplete function, some of us saw the looming danger of such a move, in that it opens up Google to requests for all kinds of autocomplete modifications. The theory was that Google could placate movie studios and record labels by refusing to let autocomplete add words like "torrent" to searches, because lord knows that there isn't a legitimate use for those damned things.

But the problem with the permission culture is that it lives by that old adage: give an inch and they will take a mile. So, as was inevitable, what began with "torrent" and media files soon became fights over autocompletes like "jew" and non-infringing search results. And, as Google opens the door another inch each time it caves in, the floodgates continue to threaten. It would be problematic for Google to assert selective moderation of autocomplete. If they will block autocomplete terms for media files, why not defamation? If they'll block defaming terms, why not parodies? If they'll block parodies, why not controversial negative articles?

That's how we've arrived in a world where the wife of a disgraced former German President is suing Google because autocomplete offers suggestions like "escort" and "prostitute" to complete a search of her name. Bettina Wulff is the wife of Christian Wulff, who resigned the Presidency amid allegations of corruption earlier in his career. For whatever reason, there have long been rumors that she had a colorful past and those rumors spread like wildfire on the internet.
"My pseudonym is supposedly 'Lady Victoria' and my workplace was apparently an establishment called 'Chateau Osnabrück,'" Wulff writes, according to Bild. She continues: "I have never worked as escort." The rumors have been very hurtful for her and her family, Wulff writes, describing her concern that her young son Leander might discover the speculation while surfing the Internet.
Wulff, working with her lawyers, has successfully sent a myriad of cease and desist notices to bloggers and television personalities, some of them quite well known in Germany. Assuming the allegations are as false as she claims, that's all good. But now she's bringing Google into the mix because autocomplete...you know...works the way it's supposed to.
But last week they took on Internet giant Google too, filing a defamation suit with the Hamburg district court to force the search engine to remove a long list of damaging terms recommended by its "Autocomplete" function in connection with Wulff. Google, which has refused to comply, claims that the search suggestions are simply the result of an algorithm. The company seems confident about the lawsuit, having won similar cases in court with claims that the search engine only reflects what people search for most often online.
But... thanks to Google's double standard in editing for copyright, it's making it easy for some to argue that it should also do the same for stories like this one:
Simply put, Google's position is this: In response to pressure from a powerful lobby, the company will block search terms and hits, forcing undesirable results lower on their list of links. But when it comes to individual people, Google unscrupulously links users to websites that violate their personal rights.

[....]It would appear that Google's position on intervening in search results and suggestions depends on the influence of the parties involved. It hides links to pirated material, but not those that violate personal rights, and it places links to its own products prominently in its supposedly objective results.

Google appears to choose what is objectionable based on what might be bad for business. The company may well come through Bettina Wulff's suit legally unscathed. But ethically, questions will remain. Google's choices in the matter seem opportunistic. Given the quasi-monopolist's powerful position in the market, that is unsettling.
Whether or not you agree those claims are accurate, you can't deny that Google made such arguments much, much easier when it started editing autocompletes and search results in favor of copyright holders.

Despite what I think is a common sense notion that Google shouldn't need to bend its autocomplete algorithm under notions of comfort, the fact that it's opened the door to doing this before will make replying to this and other suits more problematic. A Google spokesperson is quoted in the article saying that the company won't give in this time because its autocomplete suggestions are objective. That may have once been the case, but it simply isn't any more.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

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    Ninja (profile), Sep 12th, 2012 @ 7:24am

    We all saw it coming and I hope it serves as a lesson before Google decides to give in to other MAFIAA tantrums. It's obvious they know no bounds and no limits in their demands and whining. But it seems to be a human trait to whine and demand without thinking. If this woman was smart she would just let it go and keep a low profile. Now she'll be forcefully introduced to the Streisand Effect ;)

    On a side note and for my enlightenment: Jew? Is it a bad word? What's the English word for that group?

     

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      Beta (profile), Sep 12th, 2012 @ 8:24am

      Re:

      "Jew" is not exactly a bad word, but the subject has become so sensitive that many cautious speakers say "Jewish person" or "Jewish people". (Personally I use "Jew" for several reasons, including my belief that people should defend language against such nonsense.)

       

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        Ninja (profile), Sep 12th, 2012 @ 9:24am

        Re: Re:

        Oh so a proper word would be Jewish. Interesting, I thought Jewish was used as a synonym to Hebrew (the language at least). Like Arabic, Arabian, Arab. The Bible uses Hebrew to describe the Jewish ancestors so it's a bit confusing.

        I guess this is pretty much the same issue with Jap/Japanese. I sincerely use Jap with affection in the sense I both like the Japanese and their culture generally speaking. And yet I've been scorned for using it because of WWII incidents. Makes no sense, why keep something that happened in the past interfere with today?

         

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          Beta (profile), Sep 12th, 2012 @ 10:22am

          Re: Re: Re:

          I have never before heard "Jewish" used as a noun to refer to the language.

          I like Japanese people and culture too, but "Jap" and "Nip" were the terms we used in WWII, and are (to me) inseparable from the idea of the Japanese as the enemies in that war-- and the more of them you can kill in a day the better. I will use those words in that context, but the idea of using them to refer to anyone or anything today makes me shudder.

          I hope that doesn't make me sound like a hypocrite!

           

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      Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2012 @ 9:25am

      Re:

      Is it a bad word?

      Some people think so.

       

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    techflaws (profile), Sep 12th, 2012 @ 7:43am

    Case in point: some German bloggers already sympathize with Wolf cause since Google already filters terms like "f*ck" it could do so as well with "prostitute" and if it doesn't if must have some kind of agenda. Algorithms be damned!

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2012 @ 7:49am

    the dilemma for Google should be when to start fighting all this copyright crap and the subjects they are going to fight over! this continuous backing down, giving in, is going to come back and bite them seriously hard in the arse and serves them right. having no thought for the people who put them where they are is pretty disgraceful. leaving the door open for as many different items to be complained over by as many people as there are in the world is bloody stupid!

     

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      Indy, Sep 12th, 2012 @ 10:15am

      Re:

      They aren't fighting it because they are competing in the same markets as MSFT, Amazon, APPL, all of which also rolled over to get copywritten media.

      Media sells search/hardware/etc, so these tech giants capitulate [likely grumpily, but with large stacks of cash].

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2012 @ 7:49am

    We crossed that line a while ago. This is from last year: http://www.techradar.com/news/internet/google-loses-autocomplete-lawsuit-941498

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2012 @ 7:54am

    You had it coming, Google. You never become MPAA/RIAA's bitches. Ever. Once you do, things just get worse and worse from there.

     

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    Anonymous Cowherd, Sep 12th, 2012 @ 8:07am

    The moment Google started to moderate autocompletes, it stopped being "simply the result of an algorithm."

     

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    Mesonoxian Eve (profile), Sep 12th, 2012 @ 8:07am

    I'm in agreement with Google's failure to make a stand, and everything befalling them is a result of their pick-and-choose battles.

    I mean, what company caters to an industry which then turns and sues them anyway, leaving a gaping hole like this to be a problem?

    Their motto of "Don't be evil" obviously never reached the desks of those who are now trying to force what an auto-complete option will do next.

    Personally, there is one thing I've noticed: Google has gotten too big for itself. Just as with any company with such power, it seems absolutely inevitable they destroy every element which made them popular in the first place.

    Not only do they filter their auto-complete lists, but image returns as well (while comically stating some were removed by DMCA notices which can be read at chillingeffect.org).

    I believe Google's setting itself up to allow a competitor to try its hand at being a search engine. The company which does it first with "Search in retail or search on the web" will win.

    Damn, am I sick and tired of Google returning nothing but retail crap after "wikipedia" or "imdb" results.

    I'd insert an eye rolling icon, but TD doesn't offer me the option.
    ;)

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2012 @ 8:22am

    So how would you like an autocomplete for your name + child molester or your name + cocksucker? How is that right (assuming it's also untrue)

     

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      Beta (profile), Sep 12th, 2012 @ 8:28am

      Re:

      I wouldn't like it. But that doesn't mean it should be against the law. I don't like gospel singing. I don't like homeopathy. I don't like the Star Wars prequels. How many times must we have this argument?

       

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      Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2012 @ 8:38am

      Re:

      that would only happen if people were searching for that. and that would only happen if you gave people a reason to make an article saying such

       

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      Chris Brand (profile), Sep 12th, 2012 @ 9:19am

      Re:

      Ultimately, it would be a statement of fact - "a significant number of people have been searching for this combination of words". What more is there to say ? It really shouldn't matter whether I like the particular fact or not, I shouldn't have any way to prevent others from stating it.

      What Google should have done when the RIAA+MPAA came along insisting that they filter autocomplete is to instead put a hefty disclaimer/explanation of exactly what autocomplete *is*. Of course they'd sue anyway, but they'd have a tough time getting a court to say "No, Google, you cannot legally state that fact".

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2012 @ 10:02am

        Re: Re:

        Chris, isn't it possible using a concerted effort to create autocompletes to deliberately associate libelous terms with an individual's name? Is that OK?

         

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          Chris Brand (profile), Sep 12th, 2012 @ 10:12am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Sure it's possible, but in that case the person/people doing those searches are the ones at fault (and there could be a claim for defamation there, I guess), not Google for reporting the fact that those searches are happening.

           

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          techflaws (profile), Sep 12th, 2012 @ 10:36am

          Re: Re: Re:

          To what benefit. And would the people that know you believe it? After all, it's an algorithm that apparently can be gamed. If people take it at face value it probably says more about them than about anything else.

           

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          JMT (profile), Sep 13th, 2012 @ 1:24pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Yeah, that's definitely the easiest way to attack somebody online, and is clearly a serious problem that must be fixed!

           

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        Yeah Right, Sep 12th, 2012 @ 10:14am

        Re: Re:

        Very sensible post.

         

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      Mesonoxian Eve (profile), Sep 12th, 2012 @ 9:23am

      Re:

      Not to be rude, but this statement implies Google's the one putting together the auto-complete, and that's simply not true.

      If 10,000 news stories relates your name with child molester, you can be sure the auto-complete will pick it up as it was written.

      I don't imagine Google has a whole building filled with employees in a meeting discussing how auto-completes should fill when asking why there are only 8 buns for every 10 hot dog packages.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2012 @ 9:54am

        Re: Re:

        I understand your point, but as noted by an earlier post- Google is "fixing" certain autocomplete results. Allowing autocompletes to be a vehicle of character assassination doesn't seem right, if it is being used in that fashion. Better to drop autocompletion entirely.

         

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          Scott, Sep 12th, 2012 @ 10:07am

          Re: Re: Re:

          I agree with that.

           

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          Beta (profile), Sep 12th, 2012 @ 10:32am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Is there any evidence -- any evidence at all -- that autocompletion is being used as "a vehicle of character assasination"?

           

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          Franklin G Ryzzo (profile), Sep 12th, 2012 @ 10:42am

          Re: Re: Re:

          I could agree with dropping autocomplete all together as I don't find it adds any value to my search results, but it shouldn't have anything to do with the results that are reported. It simply states a fact about what the most searched for next word is based on the word being typed. If people are typing this woman's name and then typing the word whore or prostitute there is no moral obligation for Google to censor this as they are not making a judgment or expressing an opinion.

          Google's autocomplete doesn't make suggestions, and if they are going to continue the service, it should work as it was intended to. If the allegations are untrue, it is a shame that people are making these accusations, but none of this is Google's fault or problem.

           

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      Brenda, Sep 18th, 2012 @ 11:39pm

      Re:

      Maybe she shouldn't have prostituted herself.

       

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    fenixbrood (profile), Sep 12th, 2012 @ 9:01am

    Finding info

    I'm a C# developer I have I do see a noticable less relevant results for things I want to see. I search for terms like "C# bittorrent" "c# monotorrent" "free .net torrent" "metro books torrents" "dht torrent protocol" "custom torrent client" "bundle torrent"

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2012 @ 9:02am

    The truth is that auto complete is probably just a fairly bad idea in the end. It has all sorts of bad implications, and really doesn't add as much to their search as they would like.

    I always think of it as a way to guide people to the highest paying advertisers, not a way to help them search.

    Do away with it.

     

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    Mr. Oizo, Sep 12th, 2012 @ 9:20am

    The thing is...

    The thing is that I don't care whether Bettina Wulff was a hooker or not. But I do care about the fact that that family tries to censor internet.

     

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    Manok (profile), Sep 12th, 2012 @ 9:21am

    Why censoring on autocomplete yes, and search results (which are (were) the same) no?

    Then if Google were to remove this autocomplete feature altogether, will the complaints redirect to the search results themselves?

    And if Google removes this feature, wouldn't we get simply a bunch of FireFox plugins which will do this autocomplete stuff for us, directly from pounding the search results?

     

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    Yeah Right, Sep 12th, 2012 @ 10:08am

    We all know what the plan is

    media files -> defamation -> parodies -> controversial negative articles -> any negative article -> any critical article

    Google is facing serious pressure. They will not stand up to this pressure, they will try to compromise, and cave. Let's face it, we need a new search engine. I too have noticed I need to spend more time searching, because Google is fiddling with the order of the search results.

    I've also noticed a worrying trend that critical speech is increasingly being lumped together with harassment, trolling and hate speech. More and more, only voicing the official line is acceptable, and voicing a critical opinion is seen as agressive, socially unacceptable behavior.

     

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    DannyB (profile), Sep 12th, 2012 @ 10:16am

    Just get rid of Autocomplete -- courtesy of Big Media

    Google could just get rid of Autocomplete. Put a notice on their front page that this was courtesy of Copyright Maximalists.

     

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    Zos (profile), Sep 12th, 2012 @ 11:04am

    with every story i move a little closer to switching my searches to duckduckgo.

     

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    Jeffrey Nonken (profile), Sep 12th, 2012 @ 3:55pm

    "The theory was that Google could placate movie studios and record labels by refusing to let autocomplete add words like "torrent" to searches, because lord knows that there isn't a legitimate use for those damned things. "

    And because lord knows that nobody on the Internet is smart enough to add "torrent" by hand to any search term.

    "A Google spokesperson is quoted in the article saying that the company won't give in this time because its autocomplete suggestions are objective. That may have once been the case, but it simply isn't any more."

    Google is now a little bit pregnant.

     

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    monkyyy, Sep 12th, 2012 @ 8:00pm

    note to self, duck duck go is probably better then googles 2nd page by now

     

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    peopleagainstheft (profile), Sep 18th, 2012 @ 6:02pm

    This is nuts. Remember that copyright is how artists and journalists and artists and writers get paid. Censorship is when you cut off how artists and writers get paid - somehow thinking that someone's desire to hit "forward" or avoid paying $0.99 for a track trumps someone's 10,000 hours of practice and years of hard work to create something for all of us to enjoy. But if you actually understand that, then you say "ok, nothing's perfect, but let's try some stuff that's reasonable and deters piracy." The slippery slope argument has been so overused it's akin to saying we should ban matches because someone might light a house on fire. How about saying that making piracy just a little more difficult is not a bad step, but we should guard against it going too far.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Oct 29th, 2012 @ 6:20pm

      Re:

      >How about saying that making piracy just a little more difficult is not a bad step, but we should guard against it going too far.

      Going by the attempts that copyright holders and enforcers have been having, with their spectacularly atrocious records of collateral damage and complete failure to solve the problem, you'll forgive us if we're somewhat cynical of all further attempts.

       

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