Blaming the Algorithm: Defamation Case Highlights Google's Double Standard
Former German first lady Bettina Wulff has taken on Google over search terms that link to false rumors that she used to be a prostitute. The company argues that it generates such terms based on "objective factors," but it's not that simple. Google has suppressed undesirable results before in response to powerful lobby groups.
Look up former German first lady Bettina Wulff on Google Germany, and the search engine suggests refining the search with terms such as "prostitute," "bordello" and "Playboy." Wulff, whose husband Christian Wulff resigned in disgrace from the presidency in February, maintains that the rumors about her alleged "red-light past" are completely false.
On Monday, the mass-circulation newspaper Bild dedicated its front page to Bettina Wulff's autobiography, which will be published on Wednesday. It quotes from a chapter in the book in which Wulff addresses the rumors.
"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." The rumors have been very hurtful for her and her family, Wulff writes, describing her concern that her young son Leander might discover the speculation while surfing the Internet.
For some two years, Wulff has been fighting bloggers and journalists disseminating the gossip, and her lawyers have already issued 34 successful cease-and-desist orders, including one against a prominent German television personality this weekend.
But last week they took on Internet giant Google too, filing a defamation suit with the Hamburg district court to force the search engine to remove a long list of damaging terms recommended by its "Autocomplete" function in connection with Wulff. Google, which has refused to comply, claims that the search suggestions are simply the result of an algorithm. The company seems confident about the lawsuit, having won similar cases in court with claims that the search engine only reflects what people search for most often online.
A Google spokesperson has said that the insulting suggestions that come up in relation to Wulff are "the algorithmic result of several objective factors, including the popularity of search terms." The use of the term "objective" makes it sound as though Google steadfastly relies on the popularity of terms with users in selecting its search suggestions. But this simply isn't true -- the company often filters out popular search term suggestions to suit its own purposes.
When Google introduced Autocomplete in 2009, the new function often linked users to pirated software and books with terms like "torrent," "crack" and "keygen." This is no longer the case, though users' appetite for pirated material has probably not declined.
Google lawyer Kent Walker has freely admitted that the company deletes certain terms. "We will prevent terms that are closely associated with piracy from appearing in Autocomplete," he wrote in a 2010 statement.
But Google has gone even further when it comes to real and assumed links to such illegal content, now deleting search results and downgrading websites that allegedly violate copyright laws. "Fighting online piracy is very important, and we don't want our search result to direct people to materials that violate copyright laws," wrote Google's senior copyright counsel Fred von Lohmann this May.
Simply put, Google's position is this: In response to pressure from a powerful lobby, the company will block search terms and hits, forcing undesirable results lower on their list of links. But when it comes to individual people, Google unscrupulously links users to websites that violate their personal rights.
Selling Its Own Products
Google is known to remove totally legal search terms for other reasons too. In 2010, for example, a company spokeswoman said that the search engine blocks certain terms from its quick search enhancement Google Instant for the protection of minors. That could be one reason that a search under the name "Rocco" on Google Germany first brings up the last name "DiSpirito," a reference to a reasonably well-known cook (in the English-speaking world) with some 560,000 results. This result suppresses a much more popular Rocco in the German-speaking world -- Rocco Siffredi, an Italian actor who has starred in both an independent feminist film and a number of porn films, and appeared on the cover of SPIEGEL magazine. His name brings up some 17 million search results.
And Google doesn't just block search terms of its own initiative. Sometimes the company uses Autocomplete to point the way toward its own services. If a user is logged in to Google+ and searches for the name of a friend, the company gives prominent preference to that person's Google+ profile. The nod to Google's social network in search results is hardly the most useful or popular result, but serves the company's interests instead. Certainly it is not "the algorithmic result of several objective factors."
It would appear that Google's position on intervening in search results and suggestions depends on the influence of the parties involved. It hides links to pirated material, but not those that violate personal rights, and it places links to its own products prominently in its supposedly objective results.
Google appears to choose what is objectionable based on what might be bad for business. The company may well come through Bettina Wulff's suit legally unscathed. But ethically, questions will remain. Google's choices in the matter seem opportunistic. Given the quasi-monopolist's powerful position in the market, that is unsettling.
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