German former first lady sues Google over Autocomplete

by Toby Manhire / 26 September, 2012
But the search giant says don't blame it on the algorithm.
Bettina Wulff Google Autocomplete

Google is most famous for the motto "don't be evil", but "automatic for the people" might better suit its position in the face of a series of lawsuits - including one in New Zealand - over the search results it generates.

But the most interesting legal challenge to the search behemoth is being played out in Germany, where the former first lady Bettina Wulff is suing over the predictive search feature.

Tap words, or parts of words, into Google and its “Autocomplete” function conjures up a bunch of suggestions, anticipating what you might be looking for.

In Wulff’s case, it offers "Bettina Wulff prostitute", "Bettina Wulff escort", "Bettina Wulff red-light district", and similar.

Google has refused to alter the results, saying it is simply “the algorithmic results of several objective factors, including the popularity of search terms”.

Stefan Niggemeier in Der Spiegel surmises their position: “One cannot accuse an automatic mechanism of defamation ... It’s not its fault, argues Google, if someone doesn’t like the computed results.”

The wider risk for Google, of course, is that as soon as it breaks the seal on intervening in search results - be they links or Autocomplete suggestions - they'll be flooded with demands for tweaks, and potentially appear more liable for the results themselves.

The prostitute rumours are old and almost certainly unfounded, but every search on this theme encourages Google’s automated brain to proffer them to other searchers. Click on one of these automatically generated word combinations, and the result is affirmed further.

“Perhaps this is one reason why we find these functions and their algorithms so unsettling,” writes Niggemeier. “Because they so relentlessly expose human behaviour. Google is a rumourmonger for the simple reason that people are rumourmongers.”

Niggemeier concludes:

When a passive search engine morphs into an active suggestion generator, it makes Google's controversial role even more complex, namely its function as a medium for perceiving and determining reality. It is hard to imagine a law or legal decision that would provide a fair and practicable solution to these conflicts.

At the same time, the problems that the Autocomplete function creates for those concerned, and ultimately also for Google, appear to be in no way commensurate with the advantages enjoyed by its users, namely a little convenience, speed and a "rest for the fingers."

Google could simply discontinue this feature, without seriously compromising its functionality as a search engine. But refusing to do so is, of course, also a matter of principle.

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


Complaints against Ministry for Vulnerable Children double, call for watchdog
76953 2017-07-26 08:02:47Z Social issues

Complaints against Ministry for Vulnerable Childre…

by Phil Pennington

Formal complaint numbers hit 917 last year, a near doubling from 2012, as calls mount for an independent investigation body to monitor them.

Read more
Work visas for New Zealand hit an all-time high
76950 2017-07-26 07:41:55Z Economy

Work visas for New Zealand hit an all-time high

by Mei Heron

The number of work visas issued in New Zealand has hit an all-time high and the number will keep rising, according to the government.

Read more
Why Paula Bennett is trouble for the National Party
76812 2017-07-26 00:00:00Z Politics

Why Paula Bennett is trouble for the National Part…

by Graham Adams

With the solo-mum-to-Cabinet humblebrag getting old, and not enough attention paid to her portfolios, the Deputy PM is now a liability for National.

Read more
Smuggled stories of totalitarianism from North Korea
76852 2017-07-26 00:00:00Z Books

Smuggled stories of totalitarianism from North Kor…

by James Robins

The Accusation has sparse and simple stories of ordinary people caught up in North Korea’s regime.

Read more
Kiwi experts zero in on new possible cause of rheumatic fever
76629 2017-07-26 00:00:00Z Health

Kiwi experts zero in on new possible cause of rheu…

by Catherine Woulfe

Experts are starting to rethink the causes of rheumatic fever.

Read more
A ride-on mower made me the man I've always wanted to be
76810 2017-07-26 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

A ride-on mower made me the man I've always wanted…

by Greg Dixon

Aucklander-gone-countryman Greg Dixon fulfills his lifelong obsession: owning a ride-on mower.

Read more
Media warned over 'carte blanche' use of social media posts
76909 2017-07-25 13:31:44Z Social issues

Media warned over 'carte blanche' use of social me…

by Max Towle

“Just because it’s viral, doesn’t mean it should be broadcast as news.”

Read more
Win a double pass to The Dinner
76907 2017-07-25 12:21:03Z Win

Win a double pass to The Dinner

by The Listener

The Dinner is based on the international best-seller by Herman Koch, which follows two successful couples over one evening.

Read more