What’s the point of ranking highly on Google if it’s the results are all negative? Mild-mannered Joe Smith would be thrilled to make the front page, but not for such queries as “Joe Smith hates puppies” or “Joe Smith white supremacist.” A German court found Google guilty of defamation as a result of incorrect autocorrect answers.
According to the BBC, the case was won by a doctor who sued Google when his name’s autocomplete results included “fraud” and “scientology,” two words that incorrectly cast him in a bad light. As a result of the case, Google must take down untrue statements when they become aware of them.
This may sound similar to what Google Glass faced last week, when users realized their swear words were getting blocked out in text messages. Is Google headed towards a cone of censorship where they omit “no-no words” or any negative review whatsoever? In short, no. The two stories are apples and oranges: Glass was a preemptive strike similar to the one used when Android was new, while this case mandates that the victims must prove the falsehood of the search results.
So what does this mean for mild-mannered Joe Smith? He can approach Google, prove his love of dogs and racial equality and have the results taken down, but if he’s been convicted of hate crimes and animal cruelty, the search results remain. Similarly, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad can’t ask to have “conflict” and “chemical weapons” removed from the results and BP can’t ask to have “oil spill” deleted. The basis of defamation is that the statements are completely untrue.
How is Google handling the news? It stands by its search results. The autocomplete fills in the questions that people are asking the most. It doesn’t randomly start assigning negative connotations and adjectives to dethrone businesses. The emphasis on the case is that the accused will have to prove that there is zero truth to the results. The danger isn’t Google starting to censor its results, it’s people playing the system to clean up their SEO.
Bettina Wulff, Germany’s former First Lady, is currently trying to get “escort” and “prostitute” off of her search results. Google gave her the same answer they used for the court hearing: the autocomplete results reflect what other people are already searching for. While it might not be worth it for small businesses to go to court against the search engine, it could definitely help celebrities who are plagued by tabloid rumors. A false rumor about porn or drug abuse can follow someone’s search results for years.
While the results apply exclusively to Google.de (Germany’s search results) there are similar battles with Google happening across the globe. In Japan, a man is suing Google for linking his name to crimes he never committed, which he claims led to his termination. He blames Google for his inability to find a new job.
On the one hand, no one wants negative results attached to their name, but on the other, it’s hard to definitively prove that anything bad that happens to someone is directly correlated to his or her autocorrects.
Do you think these people have valid points that Google is ruining their lives, or do their arguments hold as much weight as saying McDonalds makes people fat because they sell greasy food?