The seedy side of Google Instant autocomplete

By Carlos Nazareno

Google has recently lost another court case related to its Instant search engine autocomplete technology due to controversial search suggestions.

This time around, the German Federal Supreme Court overturned previous rulings and handed down a decision (English translation) that Google must clean up offensive autocomplete search results when notified.

This is a win not just for the businessman involved identified simply as “R.S.”, but potentially for others as well. In 2010, R.S. filed a complaint when he discovered that terms “Scientology” and “fraud” were being displayed next to him whenever his name was typed into Google’s search box.

Since he was not affiliated with Scientology and the term fraud was damaging to his business and reputation, he went to court over the infringement of his rights and defamation after Google refused to remove the autocomplete suggestions appended to his name.

Google’s Instant technology works by suggesting to a user possible phrase suggestions in realtime, much like someone finishing another person’s sentence. It algorithmically suggests completion results based on the top queries made by other users and through the personal search history of the user in a kind of search filter bubble.

Google claims that it has no control over these autocomplete suggestions since they are entirely automated and generated by other users, but this argument holds no water since according to Google’s help page, they have a set of removal policies for porn, violence, hate speech and terms frequently used to infringe on copyrights.

Since Google’s suggestion results are in a sense, user-generated, there’s a big parallel between Instant and Google’s video service YouTube in which users whom Google also has no control over can upload any video they wish.

The big difference is that there’s an easy mechanism to have videos which infringe on a user’s rights in YouTube removed for Google to curate YouTube’s content. While comments about censorship have arisen on the topic of curating Google Instant search suggestions, Instant is a non-essential add-on. It will not prevent any user from making any searches by manually typing in the full search query himself.

As such, Google’s resistance to placing into Instant the same measures for content control and curation they put in YouTube is questionable at best.

Google’s court loss in Germany is only the latest in a series where they have gotten into hot water for their Instant suggestions. While these autocomplete results can produce funny images to the average user, they can have a ruinous effect on the lives of victims.

In December of last year, Australian cancer surgeon Guy Hingston sued Google for implying he was bankrupt in its suggestions. In September, Google was hit with a lawsuit from former German first lady Bettina Wulff for suggesting that she was an escort or a prostitute.

In March, Google was ordered to delete terms from its autocomplete in Japan by the Tokyo District Court — a Japanese man lost his job and was rejected by other companies when it turned out that Google would suggest criminal acts and would provide more than 10,000 results defamatory to him when his name was typed in.

Autocomplete Fail

In April of 2011, Google lost an autocomplete defamation case in Italy as well and it was ruled that Google was liable because the autocomplete content was produced by Google.

In January of 2010, a French court ordered Google to remove the word “scam” in relation to distance learning institution CNFDI. The list goes on and will probably continue to do so until Google properly addresses this situation.

In the Philippine context, just google any female celebrity and you will often find suggestions for “scandal”, “sex scandal” or “scandal full video”.

Whether or not said individuals are involved in prurient matters, these Instant suggestion results may be in violation of Google’s own policies, lead minors to inappropriate content and perpetuate a general culture of schadenfreude.

Hopefully, with a Philippine Google office now officially open, Filipinos who fall victim to Google Instant’s seedy side may find easier ways to seek respite.

The author is a self-described tech monkey. He graduated in 2000 from the Ateneo de Manila University with a degree in BS Management major in Communications Technology

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