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.