In what is widely being described in the press as a "clear defeat" for Google, a high court in Germany ruled on Tuesday that the search engine giant must remove terms from its Autocomplete feature if they violate a person's privacy.
The case had been brought on by an entrepreneur whose name had been linked to the terms "Scientology" and "swindle." The man, however, was neither a member of the religious cult nor had he been accused of fraudulent business practices. The ruling is likely to impact a much bigger case brought against the search engine by Bettina Wulff, the wife of former German President Christian Wulff. During a scandal over accepting favors that ultimately led to his resignation a year ago, Google's Autocomplete feature notoriously suggested the terms "prostitution," "escort" and "red-light district" when users entered Bettina Wulff's name.
The company had long argued that the results were based on an algorithm that, in part, measured the popularity of previous searches related to a term. But the German court on Tuesday threw out that argument, saying computers don't replace humans on the Internet when it comes to responsibility. Now, if a person submits a complaint to Google, the company will be required to delete Autocomplete terms that violate a person's privacy or otherwise defame them. Notably, the court will not require Google to take action on any suggested terms unless a complaint is submitted. As many newspapers on Wednesday note, the court has issued a carefully worded ruling that seeks not to impede Google's business model. Still, it does essentially hold that Google can be held liable for libel.
A spokesperson for Google said the company was pleased that its Autocomplete feature remained permissible, but that it "nevertheless couldn't comprehend (the court's) view that Google should still be held responsible for the search terms entered by its users. Autocomplete features terms that Google users have previously searched that are automatically displayed."
For Google, the ruling is painful one. As the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper points out in a Wednesday editorial: "As soon as Google is forced to readjust its search results, then a myth is in peril -- one the company lives off of. That of the search engine's neutrality." Of course, given that Google already tampers with its Autocomplete results in some instances, this neutrality is to a certain degree precisely that, a myth.
Among the four national German newspapers that run editorials on Google on Wednesday, there is universal support for the court's ruling.
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"The degree to which this ruling is correct is clear when you see the potential consequences of a negative entry on Google. The search engine has a market share in Germany of well over 90 percent. Those who want to inform themselves about a person or a potential business partner do so using Google. If the name is then linked to terms like 'Scientology' or 'prostitution,' then it can literally ruin a person -- financially, professionally and privately. If the word combinations provided are based on untrue insinuations, effective protection must be granted. The court has now provided this -- and literally dismantled Google's arguments in the case."
"The company views the terms that are displayed as the results of algorithms that are based, for example, on the frequency with which search terms have previously been entered. Thus, the company doesn't see itself as being responsible -- it is merely depicting reality. But it's a striking point of view because it is essentially tantamount to subjugating humans to machines. The idea that a character assassination campaign can be created and published on the Internet because of an algorithm that cannot be controlled is unacceptable. This holds particularly true given that the company keeps secret some of the factors relating to how Autocomplete works."
The leftist Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Now, when people google a name like Bettina Wulff, they will no longer get suggestions like 'red-light district' and the word 'gay' won't follow the names of famous soccer players. Nor will words like 'Scientology' or 'tax evasion' be suggested next to names. … The ruling may find broad support in Germany, a country where people fear Google like no other company."
"Technically, such intervention is no problem. Google already blocks automatic suggestions today for things like violence, pornography and copyright violations. The questions that remain are how the company is expected to deal with a potential flood of complaints, which terms will actually be deemed to violate privacy rights and which only impact a person's self image or good name?"
"One possibility is that Google will chance it with lengthy and expensive court cases. Then it would be a question of money for people who wanted their names to be washed clean -- a privilege not everyone could afford."
"Another is that Google will just act as YouTube has with copyright complaints -- it simply blocks anything that is disputed. Indiscriminately. This allows any person to decide what makes that person look bad. But if everyone is given a say in which words on the Internet may be associated with them, then it will be the start of an Internet that will function increasingly according to Facebook's principle of image cultivation."
"There's another option, too: Google could just ... eliminate the use of the Autocomplete function in Germany altogether. But while this might be better for those who have been harmed, it would be bad for everyone else."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"The Internet can't be regulated? International companies can't be put in place by national courts? Try again! The court has once again sent the message that the Internet is neither a lawless place nor can a company like Google simply do what it wants. And it is a correct ruling, too. At first glance, the Internet brings with it a lot of freedom -- it brings the world inside your home, or at least an illusion of it. But it also provides broad room for infringement of the law. And for excuses, like the one that algorithms can't be held responsible when defamatory linkages pop up when a name is entered into a search engine. … The fact is, these automated linkages can violate a person's right to privacy -- and not just that of an ex-president's wife."
"The court has correctly ruled that if credible proof is provided (of such a violation), that the (search engine) operator must eliminate slanderous linkages. Otherwise insults and false claims will quickly spread around the world. Responsibility must also be enforced on the Web."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"It is a great merit of the court that it is now establishing the principle of responsibility on the Internet. If someone violates the rights of another, then there must be a possibility of making that person responsible for it -- also in the virtual world, where such incidences can have very real and extremely painful effects. On the Web, too, it will be people and not machines that are held responsible -- and what happens there can be traced back to the people who did it and not just blamed on computer controlled processes."
"Of course it is true that it wasn't Google as a company that defamed Wulff with the term 'prostitution'. Nor were the words 'Scientology' or 'swindle' entered by any Google employee in the case in question. Nevertheless, it is still justifiable that the company can be held legally liable, because although the search engine is a wonderful thing, it also provides the infrastructure through which character assassination can be committed. Rumors can spread on the Internet like wildfire. And in this case, the Autocomplete function is tantamount to an accelerant. Those who didn't already know about vicious accusations will quickly be alerted to them in the Google search field."