On 14 May 2013, the German Federal Court ruled that Google auto-complete
feature may, under certain circumstances, constitute an infringement of
the personality right, under the German Civil Code and the German Basic Law.
Since April 2009, Google has introduced an “autocomplete” feature
integrated into the search engine, which automatically brings forth
suggestions, as word combinations, when a user enters a search in a
window. The displayed suggestions are made on the basis of an algorithm
including the number of related search queries entered by other users.
By introducing keywords into the search engine, users may thus obtain
access to third party content posted to the Internet via a displayed
list of related searches.
The case was brought to court by a public company and its CEO who had
discovered that when introducing his name on google.de, Google’s
autocomplete suggested the terms “scientology” and “fraud”.
This raises a serious question of possible defamation and it can create a serious possibility for anti-sale attacks just by introducing negative keywords related to certain companies or people, especially as there are several countries where there is no risk of legal liability for the use of the autocomplete feature.
In a decision that overruled two previous lower court decisions, the
Federal Court decided that Google must ensure that the terms generated
by auto-complete are not offensive or defamatory and that it must remove
defamatory word combinations when notified.
Google has defended itself in the past by arguing that it has no control
over the combinations of words that auto-complete suggests. The court
took this into consideration by deciding that Google was legally liable
only when becoming aware of a case of defamatory word suggestions. “The
operator is, as a basic principle, only responsible when it gets notice of the unlawful violation of personal rights.”
Autocomplete: can Google turn bad news into good profit? (14.05.2013)
Federal Supreme Court decides on the admissibility of personality
infringing of the Search addenda to “Google” (only in German, 14.05.2013)
Germany tells Google to tidy up auto-complete (14.05.2013)