Italian court found Google responsible for search suggestions to users

By EDRi · April 20, 2011

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Deutsch: [Italienisches Gericht macht Google für Suchvorschläge haftbar |]

On 31 March 2011, an Italian court of Milan ruled that Google was
responsible for its Google Suggest, the “autocomplete” function that
suggests words and characters to complete a partial search for its users.

The case was brought to court by a person whose name, when typed in the
Google search field, was associated, through the “suggested searches” (now
“related searches”), to the words “truffatore” (con man, swindler) and
“truffa” (scam, fraud). The person’s public image as an entrepreneur and
provider of educational services in the field of personal finance suffered
and the man’s lawyer, Carlo Piana, argued that Google could control the
content produced by its autocomplete function.

Google defended itself by claiming that it was protected by the E-Commerce
Directive exempting online service providers from liability for content they
give access to but not created by them.

“Google argued that it could not be held liable because it is a hosting
provider, but we showed that this is content produced by them (and by the
way, they do filter out certain content, including terms that are known to
be used to distribute copyright infringing material), although through
automated means,” wrote Carlo Piana in a blog post.

The court agreed, emphasizing that Google’s autocomplete search was not
entirely automatic and Google did have control over the defamatory
suggestions its algorithms came up with.

Moreover, Google had failed to intervene to correct the specific combination
of words despite the warning sent by the office of the applicant. An
ordinance last January had already called to intervene but Google did not
take action, arguing that the system was based on statistical evaluations
arising from users’ searches and therefore the engine is not responsible for
the content generated..

Google was ordered to filter out libellous “search suggestions” and to pay
the man 1500 Euro for the rights affected, and 2300 Euro for various legal

According to a report by All Technology News, Google has already censored in
2011, in its auto-complete keyword search, some words related to alleged
illegal piracy. Users no longer receive suggested entries for partially
entered characters for some p2p platforms.

Guido Scorza, a lawyer specializing in new media and technology law and
founder of the Institute for Innovation policies believes the court’s
decision is “an erroneous interpretation that does not take into account the
technological context and media provided for reference or the scope of
certain types of behaviour in a typical environment”. In his opinion, “a
sequence of three words, with no punctuation or logical connection, on a
blank page and just below a field of search, in 2011, is not a meaningful
sentence, let alone a sentence of offensive content.”

“We believe that Google should not be held liable for terms that appear in
autocomplete as these are predicted by computer algorithms based on searches
from previous users, not by Google itself. We are currently reviewing our
options,” was Google’s statement.

Google has lost similar cases last year in France, Sweden and Brazil.

Google is responsible for ‘autofill’ search terms, says Italian court

The Italian Court Decision (only in Italian, 31.03.2011)

Autocompletion brings liability (5.04.2011)

Google Suggest, convicted in Italy (only in Italian, 6.04.2011)

Words, just words (only in Italian, 6.04.2011)

EDRi-gram: First decision in the Italian criminal case against Google
executives (24.02.2011)