Google Autocomplete Feature Attracts Defamation Lawsuit


Google’s Autocomplete feature has attracted a lawsuit from a Hong Kong businessman, as it appears to imply that he is linked to organized crime. The feature implemented by Google a few years ago to assist users of the search engine as they enter queries, returns some suggestions or predictions that are intended to help the user, who, instead of typing, can click on the suggested words or phrases in order to save some time.

The Court in Honk Kong ruled that Albert Yeung, who is chairman of a media conglomerate, could be allowed to sue Google over the suggested results that are returned when his name is entered as a query. Although Google had objected, the court overturned the objections, allowing the defamation lawsuit over the autocomplete suggestions to proceed.

The lawsuit was filed after the company declined to get rid of autocomplete suggestions such as “triad” which are organized crime gangs in China. The term “triad” was attached as an autocomplete suggestion when Albert Yeung was entered as a query, and the suit suggests that there may be link between the query and the autocomplete suggestion.

Lawyers for Google posited that Yeung, who is the owner of an entertainment company, might be better served if the operators of the websites that contained the information were contacted, and asked to remove it. However, the judge disagreed, saying that the responsibility was with Google, who has the ability to censure the content that is published on the search engine. In the ruling, the judge cited the ease with which information or even misinformation can be spread on the web, and suggested that the challenge is to find equilibrium. The billionaire Albert Yeung, who is involved with managing many of Hong Kong’s celebrities demands compensation from Google, claiming that his reputation has been severely damaged.

This latest challenge for Google follows the recent ruling of the top European court, who ruled earlier this year, that the company and other search engines must comply with requests to remove links to information published on web pages, when search queries are entered. In 2013, a German court ruled favorably for the owner of a nutrition supplements company, who sued Google when autocomplete suggestion included links to fraud and Scientology.

Google has offered no comment on the latest challenge, except to state that more than 70,000 requests to remove links has been received since the ruling by the European court. Critics have suggested that a pattern appears to be developing, and the procedures may have some important ramifications for Google and the manner in which the search engine operates. In addition to handling the multiple numbers of requests for removal that may require some human intervention, the company simultaneously faces the challenge of handling the very sensitive issue of media censorship.

Google may, in order to avoid attracting further legal activity or lawsuits from the autocomplete suggestion feature, need to adapt a more pro-active approach. That same change of approach, however, may have further implications for the notion of net neutrality and censorship.

By Dale Davidson

Toronto Star
Value Walk

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