Amusing examples of auto-complete in Web searches are a staple of Twitter and Facebook. But they might not be so funny for Google. A Hong Kong court has cleared the way for the search giant to be sued for adding erroneous and possibly defamatory words to a Web search via its auto-complete feature.
The legal dispute originated with Albert Yeung, chairman of the Hong Kong-based Emperor Motion Pictures group, who says that when he searched his name in Google, it automatically added the words "triad" and "perversion." Triad is a term for Chinese criminal gangs.
Yeung started demanding two years ago that Google remove the suggested search terms from his name. Google has argued that it is not responsible for search terms used by the auto-complete feature, which makes proactive suggestions when a user starts to type into the search box. The feature offers suggestions based on popular searches. Earlier this week, however, the High Court of Hong Kong dismissed Google's claims, saying the company could be held liable for the content it recommends to users.
More Privacy Issues
The legal hassle comes just weeks after Google was ordered to implement a right to be forgotten in Europe.
When we reached Scott Strawn, an analyst who heads IDC's Strategic Advisory Service, he said the Hong Kong ruling would bring Google headaches similar to those in the "right to be forgotten" controversy. The difference here, he told us, is the precedent this case could set.
"If this case holds up, Google will have to make some big, subjective changes based on imperfect feedback from a user," Strawn said. "(Yeung) is a person with the to go through the court system, but what if this means everyone can make a similar claim? If you're Google, how do you technically input that into your system?"
Yeung is seeking damages for libel, saying the auto-complete results have damaged his reputation. In responding to Yeung, Google said the point of auto-complete is to offer helpful results based on the search activity of past users.
"Google Inc. is a mere passive facilitator in respect of the words/images seen on its domains," company lawyers wrote.
But Judge Marlene Ng ruled that a lawsuit was warranted.
"The advantages of having easy access to a rich store of information are many, and they have been widely applauded," Ng said. "But such benefit comes at a price; any risk of misinformation can spread easily as users forage in the Web."
Apart from the other privacy hassles Google has faced, this doesn't mark the first time its auto-complete technology has gotten it in trouble. In 2012, it was ordered to remove auto-complete suggestions that a Japanese man said linked him to a series of crimes. Similar complaints have been brought forward in Germany and Italy.
IDC's Strawn said the outcome of the Hong Kong case could have an effect on Google's attempts to expand its reach worldwide.
"As markets go, Hong Kong is not China," he said. "But this could make things challenging in China. It's not an insignificant ruling."