On April 1, Google announced that it was hiring ‘autocompleters’ to make helpful suggestions to users making searches. That was a joke: this isn’t.
The company yesterday lost a legal case from an Italian man who claimed that the company’s autocomplete function was libelous.
“Typing in the Google search field ‘Name Surname’ of my client, the autocompletion and the ‘suggested searches’ (now ‘related searches’) offered to complete it with ‘con man’ (‘truffatore’) and ‘fraud’ (‘truffa’), which caused a lot of trouble to the client, who has a pulic image both as an entrepreneur and provider of educational services in the field of personal finance,” says the unnamed man’s lawyer, Carlo Piana.
Google’s in the past been able to sidestep similar accusations because they related to the actual sites being thrown up by the search; the company’s successfully argued that it’s acted merely as a hosting provider rather than a content producer.
In this case, though, it’s the suggested searches that are at issue – and this is content that’s produced by Google itself.
Google has a different take on the matter. It claims it’s not actually responsible for the terms that appear in autocomplete, as they’re produced by algorithms on the basis of searches by previous users.
In other words, if there’s any libel actually taking place, it’s from those pesky users who have previosuly searched for the complainant’s name along with the term ‘con man’.
Piana argues that the decision does not amount to censorship, as Google was given plenty of notice, and that the take-down request related to only two terms.
“All cases are different, therefore there is no assurance that similar cases would see the same outcome,” he says.
Nevertheless, it’s a rather nasty little precedent from Google’s point of view – and one that might be an argument for hiring autocompleters for real, just to make sure nobody gets too offended.