The geopolitics of Google’s autocomplete

Google’s autocomplete algorithm doesn’t just enable users to save precious seconds of typing by predictavely filling in the rest of the search. It’s also, apparently, the subject of contentious legal cases the world over. The latest example: On Wednesday, a German federal court ruled that libelous autocompletes are a violation of privacy. As the BBC ...

609760_gordon_02.jpg
609760_gordon_02.jpg

Google's autocomplete algorithm doesn't just enable users to save precious seconds of typing by predictavely filling in the rest of the search. It's also, apparently, the subject of contentious legal cases the world over. The latest example: On Wednesday, a German federal court ruled that libelous autocompletes are a violation of privacy.

As the BBC reports, the case was brought by a businessman (fittingly, he remains unnamed) who was frustrated by the fact that Google.de autocompleted searches of him with "scientology" and "fraud." This week's ruling -- which overturned two previous decisions in favor of Google -- called on the search giant to make changes to its autocomplete function when made aware of an "unlawful violation."

And this is far from an isolated case. The BBC goes on to report:

Google’s autocomplete algorithm doesn’t just enable users to save precious seconds of typing by predictavely filling in the rest of the search. It’s also, apparently, the subject of contentious legal cases the world over. The latest example: On Wednesday, a German federal court ruled that libelous autocompletes are a violation of privacy.

As the BBC reports, the case was brought by a businessman (fittingly, he remains unnamed) who was frustrated by the fact that Google.de autocompleted searches of him with “scientology” and “fraud.” This week’s ruling — which overturned two previous decisions in favor of Google — called on the search giant to make changes to its autocomplete function when made aware of an “unlawful violation.”

And this is far from an isolated case. The BBC goes on to report:

The ruling could also have a bearing on another case involving auto-complete. Bettina Wulff, wife of former German president Christian Wulff, sued Google because auto-complete suggested words linking her to escort services. Mrs Wulff denies ever working as a prostitute and has fought several legal cases over the accusation. The case against Google is due to be heard soon in a Hamburg court.

The technology blog Techdirt, which snarkily claims to have a “suing-algorithms-for-fun-and-profit! dept” brought us another story last year of an Australian surgeon named Guy Hingston who sued Google for defaming him by implying that he’s not doing so well financially. The search:

But as TechDirt pointed out, Hingston may be shooting himself in the foot. His case, in attracting media attention, has made it all the more likely that “bankrupt” will appear next to his name in a search.

In 2012, ZDNet wrote about a Hong Kong tycoon who sued Google for similar reasons. As ZDNet noted, “Whether Yeung’s name is input into Google Search in English or Chinese, a drop-down option for the search term plus ‘triad’ [the name for China’s organized crime organizations] appears — a connotation which is unlikely to make the tycoon happy.”

And individuals aren’t the only parties bringing autocomplete-related lawsuits. In 2012, an anti-discrimination group in France, SOS Racisme, sued Google for discriminatory autocompletes — in this particular instance, linking “Jew” or “Jewish” with searches for people who aren’t Jewish like Rupert Murdoch. Go figure.

With so many loose associations on Google, does it really make sense to hold the company accountable for each one? After all, you could argue that everything from women to countless countries to former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have been defamed by autocomplete. Google, for its part, claims little responsibility. Their defense: the algorithm works by filling in blanks based on the frequency of our searches. In other words, we’re all kind of slandering each other.

Screenshot [h/t Telegraph Online]

Marya Hannun is a Ph.D. student in Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. Follow her on Twitter at: @mrhannun.

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