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Google The Courts

In Germany, Offensive Autocomplete Is No Laughing Matter 200

Posted by Soulskill
from the why-are-IT-people dept.
itwbennett writes "We've all had a chuckle over Google's autocomplete results for various search queries. But one German businessman had a less funny experience when he searched for his name on Google.de: The autocomplete suggested search terms where his name was tied with 'Scientology' and 'fraud' (in German, of course). This was back in 2010. In 2012, a German court ruled that the autocomplete terms did not infringe the plaintiff's privacy. Now, a year later, the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe has overturned that ruling and ordered that Google remove offensive search suggestions when notified."
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In Germany, Offensive Autocomplete Is No Laughing Matter

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  • How will this affect my business proposal of adding paid autocomplete suggestions?

    You type:
    Che

    And it autofills with:
    Cheeseburgers are delicious at McDonnalds®
    • Re:Hmm (Score:5, Funny)

      by Austerity Empowers (669817) on Tuesday May 14, 2013 @05:15PM (#43724967)

      The notion that McDonalds cheeseburgers are delicious is offensive to cheeseburgers everywhere.

      So don't do this in Germany.

  • I seem to recall a case in Australia in the last year where Google was asked to remove offensive autocomplete terms, and didn't. And got sued. And lost.

    It's because it's potentially defamatory. And just like I can't write "I saw Soulskill touch a dogs wiener" without potentially being sued, Google can't write that Herr Rolf is a fraud.

    • by cgimusic (2788705) on Tuesday May 14, 2013 @05:28PM (#43725163)
      Google are not writing that though. What they would effectively be writing is "'Herr Rolf is a fraud' is one of the most commonly searched terms in our search engine" which would be pretty easy to prove and hence it is not defamatory.
      • by AK Marc (707885)
        "Defamatory" means "derogatory". Are you saying that a negative statement isn't negative if it's true? It may not be actionable, but it is still negative.
        • by fnj (64210)

          Defamation [thefreedictionary.com]: Any intentional false communication, either written or spoken, that harms a person's reputation ...

      • by Xest (935314)

        That and Google is global.

        What if I write a novel about a fraudulent scientologist businessman in my jurisdiction outside of Germany. Should I be penalised on sales of my book because of some asshat half way around the globe whose decided my novel sounds just like them and decides to have the autocomplete for my book removed?

      • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

        It's more like finishing someone's sentence for them. You say "Herr Rolf..." and I interject with "is a fraud".

        In Europe the media has some responsibility to stand behind what it reports, and merely stating that "some people say" generally isn't enough to avoid libel without further elaboration. The same argument might apply to Google, i.e. "unknown others may have searched for..." is not a defence.

    • I can see this abused by organizations and individuals who have perpetrated frauds on people or who have acted in other devious and underhanded ways to make it more difficult to find sites that expose their activities (ie Scientology mind control, fraud, etc)

      All they would have to do was to point to some civil suit that they had against the people making the alleged false claims to 'prove' that they were fighting these baseless accusations and that the results should be removed from autocomplete

      I can see th
      • This is not about search terms or search hits but just about autocomplete. It's not about hiding what you did, but about not slapping people looking for you or your company into the face with terms that come solely from other people searching for something (and maybe even not finding anything).

        I mean, if I start to type your name into Google and Google suggests completions of "sells drugs to minors" just because people search for this in connection with your name (or someone else with the same name) you wou

        • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

          It weeds out completions reeking of sex, of anything negative about Google itself

          I tried typing in "gmail su" and it suggested "gmail sucks". The adult material filter is correct but they don't censor stuff about themselves.

    • ""just like I can... write "I saw Soulskill touch a dogs wiener" ""

      You saw it too? We should tell Google. And Germany.

    • by Solandri (704621)
      Google isn't writing it. The World Wide Web is. Google's autocomplete is just a nifty tool that compiles all that WWW cross-relationship data and displays it for you in real-time as you type.

      This is shooting the messenger. If RottenTomatoes says that a movie liked by 15% of reviewers, it's wrong to sue RottenTomatoes for reporting that. They're not saying the movie is bad. They're just stating the fact that 85% of reviewers didn't like the movie. Likewise, Google's autocomplete is just stating the
  • How else would Autocomplete know what is offensive (or not) to you?

    Since what constitutes "offensive" material varies wildly from person to person and also depending on the reason/motives people have to do any particular search, I doubt there is any way for autocomplete to comply.

    I bet the plaintiff would consider my post defending autocomplete's cluenessless offensive.

    • by Aristos Mazer (181252) on Tuesday May 14, 2013 @05:29PM (#43725177)

      I think that's why the court required the "when notified" part. I don't agree, but at least it is feasible to implement.

      • by Obfuscant (592200)
        I have a dictionary online.

        I have perl.

        What's the API for the "notify Google of offensive autocomplete words"?

        • by joh (27088) on Tuesday May 14, 2013 @06:05PM (#43725733)

          I have a dictionary online.

          I have perl.

          What's the API for the "notify Google of offensive autocomplete words"?

          You don't get this. It's not about "offensive words" but about connecting YOU to things you have nothing to do with just by suggesting completions others have searched for.

          So the API is: Type your name into the Google search field and if you get completions that would be libel if published as a headline with your name in it in a newspaper, notify Google as you would notify the newspaper. It's not about search hits or things said on other sites Google just indexed. It's about what Google publishes about YOUR name in the completions and your rights.

          • One of the top hits for my name is a page about banging lusty whores.... Not sure if I should be happy or upset about that one.
      • by wile_e8 (958263)
        The problem is preventing abuse of this implementation. How soon until companies are notifying Google that they are offended because they don't like what autocomplete is associating with their product? For example, right now when I enter "iphone" in the Google search bar, one of the autocomplete options is "jailbreak". What if Apple notifies Google that they are offended by that? I think it would get even worse when products have negative reviews or make negative news.
      • by jopsen (885607)

        I think that's why the court required the "when notified" part. I don't agree, but at least it is feasible to implement.

        Actually, I don't understand why Google just doesn't says thanks for reporting the problem, and take a small administrative fee for fixing it (just to cover the 10 min. of fact checking the fix would require to apply).

        On topic, I see the problem that you can be sued for things that an automated system says... On the other hand "when notified" it really shouldn't be hard to fix, certainly not for a company with the resources such as Google. Furthermore, as these are every day tools for millions of people t

    • by PopeRatzo (965947) on Tuesday May 14, 2013 @06:07PM (#43725767) Homepage Journal

      Since what constitutes "offensive" material varies wildly from person to person and also depending on the reason/motives people have to do any particular search

      If I start searching for "muslim teachings" Google will offer me "muslim terrorist" as soon as I type the first "t".

      How long will that hold up if google is held liable for what it's autocomplete algorithm does.

      German courts have their heads up their asses on this one. Autocomplete is nothing more than a basic statistical lookup. Germany is basically making the use of statistics a thought crime.

    • Since what constitutes "offensive" material varies wildly from person to person and also depending on the reason/motives people have to do any particular search, I doubt there is any way for autocomplete to comply.

      That's why we have a lot of objective*, if necessarily somewhat arbitrary, laws, and courts to mete out punishment when someone breaks them. It wouldn't really work if you had one party claiming they'd been wronged by their own standards and the other party just disagreeing and being done with it.

      *that's the idea, anyway, but lawyers have to put food on the table somehow.

      I bet the plaintiff would consider my post defending autocomplete's cluenessless offensive.

      Offensive to him, perhaps - but he certainly wouldn't get very far claiming it was defamation, which is what he's claiming of autocomplete

  • by bhlowe (1803290) on Tuesday May 14, 2013 @05:31PM (#43725225)
    I think that's fair. I have a software product that used to auto complete with "torrent" and "crack". Made me a little miffed. Eventually google stopped doing that.
  • by Koreantoast (527520) on Tuesday May 14, 2013 @05:32PM (#43725229)
    I'm curious how German law determines what is an "offensive" search. If there's a legal definition, then maybe you can work something, but if "offensive" is determined by the "offended", then Google might as well disable the entire feature as anyone who doesn't like the autocomplete result for their name or term begin banning just about every potentially offensive combination out there.
    • by arth1 (260657)

      I'm curious how German law determines what is an "offensive" search.

      It doesn't. Germany has civil law, not common law.
      Courts decide on a case-by-case basis whether the living law was broken, and a court has no authority to determine how it is to be interpreted, unlike in common law.

      • Duuuh, your post is confusing. Since Germany has civil law, offenses have to be specifically defined in statutes. Which is the exact contrary of your "it doesn't" in the first part of you post. The second part is more accurate, but comes in almost perfect contradiction to the first.

        Disclaimer: my German is rusty and IANAL, so I don't know how much leeway German courts have to apply established laws to individual cases, nor to which extent the notions of jurisprudence constante and doctrine apply in Germany.

    • by stenvar (2789879) on Tuesday May 14, 2013 @05:58PM (#43725621)

      Standards are pretty low. Calling an airline pilot a "bus driver", calling a store a "fraud" in a review (even if you obviously don't mean it literally), flipping someone off, or using someone's first name if you haven't been introduced are all criminal offenses with prison sentences of up to 1-2 years. True statements can also be criminal offenses.

      http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beleidigung_(Deutschland) [wikipedia.org]

      Flipping someone off behind the wheel generally costs upward of $4000 in penalties, a milder gesture around $1000. Just about anything negative you say to a policeman will get you charged and convicted in Germany.

      • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

        The examples in that Wikipedia article seem to be made up. They are unsourced and I couldn't find evidence of them being true in a brief Google search. I have a feeling some WP editor wanted to make a point that doesn't necessary reflect real life.

        Do you have any evidence that such mild insults have resulted in large fines and/or jail time in Germany?

    • I'm curious how German law determines what is an "offensive" search. If there's a legal definition, then maybe you can work something, but if "offensive" is determined by the "offended", then Google might as well disable the entire feature as anyone who doesn't like the autocomplete result for their name or term begin banning just about every potentially offensive combination out there.

      Google avoids lots of completions already. You won't get completions about many things that Google deems to be offensive, like sexual terms (even porn actors) or negative things about Google. Google does this fairly arbitrarily with no documented rules or anything. It's not that adding something to a blacklist if someone requests this in connection with his name would be anything major to this. In fact it would just give you some rights that Google assumes for itself as a matter of course.

      Note that in Germa

    • Normally in cases like this it is just whatever the police officer of judge says is offensive/pornography/dangurous.

      The problem with strict written definitions is that they would allow the average citizen to actually understand the legal system and know what is and is not legal; While at the same time preventing judges from just handing out whatever rulings they feel like. So of course the would be unacceptable.

  • The first autocomplete is "Deutschland über alles!"
    Now that's offensive.
  • The Germany loves David Hasselhoff.
  • What if Google just removes auto complete for everyone in Germany? 'cause how are they supposed to know what someone may find offensive?
    • by houghi (78078)

      Great idea. I hope they do that where I live as well.

    • by joh (27088)

      They are supposed to know it by people with the name completing to something that borders on libel telling them about it.

  • For all the help auto complete is, I'd be quite happy to lose it entirely. On the other hand, auto complete should be different on each user's machine because the users past searches influence the results shown. Also, other users may want to see the results this user complains of. In a world with so many people having the same name, trying to control your name bumps up against the rights of everyone else that has the same name. People have to accept that auto complete is not an information source in itself
    • by joh (27088)

      So tell Google not to customize completions for "Google". And to not filter out anything related to porn. And probably lots of other things Google will never tell you about.

  • There was once a website that was called isgay.com basically what you did was put in a sub-domain such as Billy-Bob.isgay.com and it would then take you to a newspaper style article that went on and on about how gay billy-bob was. Needless to say it was autogenerated from the sub-domain that you entered. The best part of the website was a section listing their hate-mail. Basically it consisted of "I HAVE CONTACTED THE INTERNET POLICE....blah blah." I think some of their haters were crying when writing it th
  • This is like medieval animal trials and nearly as ridiculous.

    Algorithms are not sentient beings, nor are they created with malicious or slanderous intent. They are, perhaps, imperfect, but you'd have to be a complete moron to legislate or judicially mandate perfection (oh, wait...)

    If history is any indication, I shudder at the thought that it could be centuries before have even remotely sane tech policy.

  • A lot of you are ignoring one important fact: Google is not a person.

    Does a company even have a right to free speech?

    Also, Google claims it's simply repeating what others typed into the search box, so it can hardly count as Google exercising free speech rights, correct?

    Now if it was a private person we're talking about and they typed that text by themselves, they'd be in for slander. And that even in the US. Case closed.

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