An anonymous plaintiff claims to have lost his job and suffered great humiliation at the hands of Google, which displays more than 10,000 search results “defaming or disparaging” him when a searcher selects one of the autocomplete results on his name.
The man’s lawyer, Hiroyuki Tomita, told Japan Times his client “decided to seek a court injunction after learning the autocomplete feature likely played a role in the sudden loss of his job several years ago and caused several companies to subsequently reject him when he applied for new jobs.”
Tokyo District Court granted an injunction against the search giant on March 19, though the anonymous man behind the petition won’t have his way quite yet. Google is reviewing the court order, which would force Google's operations based in U.S. to obey the Japanese court of law.
The March 19 case is believed to be the first to order the removal of specific terms from the search feature, which attempts to instantly anticipate and list words or phrases a person types into a browser's search box, Tomita said.
And therein lies the problem, folks. Google doesn’t have little elves in the backrooms of the Googleplex spinning up tens of thousands of disparaging search results for... well, anyone, to my knowledge. Nor do they have typing monkeys at the ready to create the search volume required to make a term an autocomplete response.
No, in order for Google to suggest a logical Autocomplete term for a user in the process of typing in a query, two conditions must exist:
- People must have searched the term often enough for it to become a suggested term.
- There must already be results somewhere, somehow, online in order for Google to display them.
"This can lead to irretrievable damage, such as job loss or bankruptcy, just by displaying search results that constitute defamation or violation of the privacy of an individual person or small and medium-size companies," Tomita said.
Well yes, it can. However, when one is facing a reputation and/or defamation problem on a scale as such, where there are 10,000 and some odd webpages dedicated to that person, the problem is not how people find them. That type of issue must be dealt with at the source.
Blocking off the road, cutting the phone lines, tearing up the map... none of these are logical solutions for getting rid of the problem you’d like to keep hidden at the end of that road. Even if it seems the easier way to deal with it, to cut off access at the largest sources of traffic, it’s not always legal or possible.
Google must know this would never fly in an American court, and to comply with the order would set a dangerous precedent.
Tomita’s assertion that this is the first case of its kind is untrue. He told Japan Times their case “is believed to be the first to order the removal of specific terms from the search feature, which attempts to instantly anticipate and list words or phrases a person types into a browser's search box.” However, in January of this year, a French court ordered Google to pay a $65,000 fine and remove the word “escroc” (crook) as an Autocomplete suggestion for the name of the plaintiff in that case.
Additionally, Google and then-CEO Eric Schmidt were found guilty of defamation in Paris after Google Suggest (the former name of Google Autocomplete) suggested search terms including "rapist" and "satanist" for queries conducted on one plaintiff's name.
Other legal issues around Automcomplete/Suggest have included a "scam" suggestion in Paris (for which Google was found guilty), and lawsuit in Belgium (for which Google was found not guilty). Anti-semitism terms were another issue for Google in Argentina, while an Irish hotel also tried to sue Google for demation for implying it was having financial troubles.
While it may be a difficult case to try in the United States, it’s becoming clear other areas of the globe aren’t nearly as tolerant to the whims of Autocomplete.
What do you think, is Google right in refusing to comply? Let us know in the comments!
Editor's Note: The word "Defies" in the headline of this story has been changed to "Reviews". After publishing our original story, a Google spokesperson contacted Search Engine Watch to clarify that Google is currently reviewing the provisional order.