Google is facing another lawsuit over their autocomplete search feature. This time, Germany’s former First Lady, Bettina Wulff, is taking the search giant to court. Google refuses to remove defamatory autocomplete suggestions that peg her as a prostitute, yet they have the capacity to block certain terms and remove results, as evidenced by their fight against piracy.
In response to rumors during her husband Christian Wulff’s presidency, she filed a sworn affidavit with the German courts denying any involvement in prostitution. Still, Internet users searching for information about her see her name alongside “prostitute,” “escort,” and “red light district,” when typing Bettina Wulff into the Google search bar.
Mass-circulation newspaper Bild said Wulff tackles the topic in her upcoming biography. "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."
According to BBC, the rumors began in an effort to disrupt her husband’s political career. German newspaper Der Speigel reports Wulff has filed 34 successful cease and desist orders against her detractors. She has spent two years fighting the allegations.
Autocomplete results are generated based on the information people are already searching for, said Google Germany head of PR Kay Overbeck. "All terms that appear have been previously entered by Google users," he said in a statement.
Google has refused to remove the autosuggest results for Bettina Wulff on the basis that they are algorithmic and therefore an objective reflection of search volume. However, Google does remove some results.
Kent Walker, a Google lawyer, wrote in a 2010 statement on the Google Public Policy blog, “...along with this new wave of creators come some bad apples who use the Internet to infringe copyright... We will prevent terms that are closely associated with piracy from appearing in Autocomplete.”
Perhaps “bad apples” who attempt to destroy the reputations of individuals should not be rewarded for their efforts, either. In piracy cases, companies are offered protection by Google by way of making infringing content less accessible. Clearly, the technology is there to offer the same protection for private citizens victimized by manipulation of Google’s algorithms for nefarious reasons.
BBC reported that Bing also shows defamatory autosuggest results for Bettina Wulff, though when Search Engine Watch tested this, that was not the case.
Google was fined $65,000 earlier this year in France, after refusing to remove autocomplete suggestions that labeled a French insurance company a “crook.”
Google and former CEO Eric Schmidt were also found guilty of defamation in 2010 when the search engine suggested terms including “rapist” and “Satanist” for a plaintiff. In another case, an Argentina court ruled Google must censor anti-Semitic search results.
Clearly, courts feel Google must respond to complaints of defamatory autocomplete results by removing the offending content. Google has shown they are able to do so with their removal of piracy search terms. Whether they continue to fight in various countries for the right to allow false, defamatory results in Autocomplete remains to be seen.
Consider the volume of successful cease and desist orders filed by Wulff. There is a complete lack of evidence she has anything to do with prostitution, beyond the use of the term by unscrupulous individuals to play politics against her husband. This is not a case of a politician or celebrity simply not liking their press coverage.
But look beyond the individual or company being victimized by autocomplete manipulation in these various cases. When autocomplete suggestions are proven patently false, isn’t Google doing the average user a disservice by not only allowing inaccurate information to appear, but actually suggesting it to them?
Google chose their position as stewards of the world’s masses of information. What responsibility do they have to ensure their algorithms aren't manipulated to cause harm?
Do you think Google should voluntarily remove defamatory autocomplete suggestions? Weigh in with your comments.