Turning inner space into outer space

August 6, 2014

Google's autocomplete has suddenly become serious business

If you haven’t had fun with Google autocomplete, you’re missing out on a popular Internet pastime. People have been posting their results for years.

One of the best-known recent examples is a map of Europe by Randy Olson showing autocompletes for the phrase: “Why is [country] so . . .?”

Why is country so

You can do the same for other places. For Canada, the top result is “bad at soccer.” It might have something to do with the second result: “boring.”

For B.C., it’s “expensive” and for Kamloops, it’s “smoky.” Wildfires are a big worry in River City.

But what if autocomplete didn’t come up with a harmless result. What if, instead, it was actually defamatory.

If you type in Albert Yeung, you get “triad” next to his name — and the Hong Kong entrepreneur maintains that this association with criminal gangs is bad for business.

So he went to court, and got a judge to agree that he can sue Google because it refuses to remove the autocomplete. CBC has the story from The Associated Press:

Judge Marlene Ng disagreed with Google’s lawyers, who argued Yeung was better off asking the websites where the defamatory information was published to remove it. She said Google had the ability to censor material.

Google finds itself in an awkward position. The company is so successful that it has become synonymous with search. That means its autocompletes are seen by millions of people every day — and a bad one could indeed affect a person’s reputation.

The U.S. firm is already trying to figure out the best way to deal with a European “right to forget” law requiring it to remove information about people if they make a request.

And The Associated Press notes this isn’t the first autocomplete case to go before a court.

Last year, a German court ruled in favour of a nutritional supplements company and its owner who sued Google to remove autocomplete terms suggesting links to Scientology and fraud.

Google makes the bulk of its money by gathering data about users and translating that into ad revenue. But that data is turning into a double-edged sword.

No longer can the company claim to be an disinterested bystander. They’re in this up to their necks.