Google and its very clever Auto-Suggestions, is it online defamation?

Any Google user knows that typing a search term into Google gives up a number of auto-suggestions i.e. if you type George you will get suggestions for ‘Michael’ ‘Clooney’ and ‘Harrison’, among others. For most people this is thought of as a time saving and expeditious tool to make online searching even easier. However, for others it can actually lead to some of the worst online defamation.

Take the recent example of Bettina Wulff, the wife of the former German President who is currently suing Google for the auto suggestions of ‘prostitution’ and ‘escort’ whenever her name is typed into Google. Google’s position is that this is an ‘algorithmic’ issue and it mirrors the popularity of search terms on an objective basis.

I agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Wulff’s action. I probably would have advised her to do the same thing.

The Google algorithm is created and programmed by Google and not intended to create Internet Defamation. It is their biggest asset; their trade secret similar to the recipe for Coke, or the secret ingredient in a Big Mac. Google can amend this algorithm they can change what is offered up as an auto-suggestion but it does involve some serious ‘algorithmic’ amendments. This is much more complicated than removing a defamatory webpage or removing links to a defamatory blog etc, which Google can pretty much do at the click of a button. It is not something that can simply be turned off.

Google has supressed other auto-suggestions in the past, for example in relation to material deemed offensive to minors and to sites offering pirated/copyright infringing material, so it can be done with internet defamation.

The auto-suggestions are fuelled, to an extent, by the popularity of other search results, so defamatory web pages left to lie will inevitably lead to defamatory auto-suggestions. Again, this is illustrative of the fact that if you leave defamatory web pages alone, without taking any action to combat them, they will not just go away,they will get worse.

We, at Pinder Reaux, have been involved in international cases involving this very same auto-suggestion issue. We have also been contacted by many clients suffering this new type of ‘auto-defamation’, which will become a bigger issue unless Google takes stock. What appears to be a simple way of assisting a search has essentially opened up a ‘can of new online defamation worms’

John Spyrou

Head of Media and Internet Law

Pinder Reaux & Associates