Can a Google autocomplete function be libelous?

by on September 21, 2012 at 3:12 am in Law, Web/Tech | Permalink

From Germany:

…for Bettina Wulff it’s a nightmare. The wife of former German President Christian Wulff wants the search engine to cease suggesting terms that she finds defamatory. This has nothing to do with the search results, but rather with the recommendations made by Google’s “Autocomplete” function, a service that is also offered by competitors like Bing and Yahoo. All one has to do is type her first name and the first letter of her last name to get search suggestions such as “Bettina Wulff prostitute,” “Bettina Wulff escort” and “Bettina Wulff red-light district.”

Don’t forget the problem of cascades here:

The Autocomplete function, the usefulness of which Google so guilelessly praises as a means of giving one’s fingers a rest, undeniably helps spread rumors. Assuming that someone unsuspectingly begins to look for information on “Bettina Wulff” and is offered “prostitute,” “Hanover” and “dress” as additional search terms — where, independent of their actual interests, will users most likely click?

NAME REDACTED September 21, 2012 at 3:19 am

Look more into this story. There are interesting pictures.

anon September 21, 2012 at 8:41 am

Kind of like Google auto complete for
harry reid pederast

affenkopf September 21, 2012 at 3:31 am

Google already censors the autocomplete function when it comes to piracy.

Andreas Moser September 21, 2012 at 4:42 am

When I enter “affenkopf”, Google suggests “affenkopfpilz”, a kind of mushroom.

prior_approval September 21, 2012 at 5:34 am

And did anybody make a concerted effort to create that connection? Because the Hannover CDU apparently understood how to googlebomb one of its own leaders back in the middle of the last decade. Don’t google Santorum and Savage if you want one of the more famous examples, though in that case of googlebombing, no one actually suggested that ‘santorum’ was anything but a new word, and not a libelous lie (or actual truth, as the case may be) concerning Santorum’s own personal experience with ‘santorum.’

Never forget, Bettina Wulff is defending herself against lies apparently spread by people in the same party as her husband. Conservatives can be so charming at times.

Vernunft September 21, 2012 at 3:47 am

Not libel. Next.

affenkopf September 21, 2012 at 4:02 am

You’re an expert in German libel law?

Vernunft September 21, 2012 at 5:29 am

Do you know what Google is? How it works? What computers are?

You must be on one, right?

My toaster can’t libel me.

My shoes can’t commit perjury.

The internet is a strange place.

prior_approval September 21, 2012 at 5:45 am

Of course google can libel you. Though in America, the DMCA safe harbor provisions allow google a margin to exist in without constant lawsuits – http://www.chillingeffects.org/ is a fine place to see how thosebboundaries are constructed in practice.

Do you honestly think google gets a pass in Germany when it breaks German laws, such as those concerning nazi/neo-nazi propaganda? Especially considering that censorship of such in Germany is not based on some slippery slope theorizing – the words and writing of one man, and his followers, were instrumental in killing millions of people. No one in Germany (except a tiny minority of seemingly would be wannabe mass murderers) wants to have that system return, it having already once proven what it can do. And laws have been passed, in part as an additional preventive measure from having it happen again.

Much like there are laws against boycotts in Germany. Care to wonder just why that might be? Maybe an upcoming anniversary could help refresh one’s memory why that is so.

Germany is not the U.S., is not ruled by American law, and is quite familiar with computers – after all, the first programmable computer is a German invention-

‘Konrad Zuse (German: [ˈkɔnʁat ˈtsuːzə]; 1910–1995) was a German civil engineer, inventor and computer pioneer. His greatest achievement was the world’s first functional program-controlled Turing-complete computer, the Z3, which became operational in May 1941.

Zuse was also noted for the S2 computing machine, considered the first process-controlled computer. He founded one of the earliest computer businesses in 1941, producing the Z4, which became the world’s first commercial computer. From 1943[1] to 1945[2] he designed the first high-level programming language, Plankalkül.[3] In 1969, Zuse suggested the concept of a computation-based universe in his book Rechnender Raum (Calculating Space).

Much of his early work was financed by his family and commerce, but after 1939 he was given resources by the Nazi German government.[4] Due to World War II, Zuse’s work went largely unnoticed in the United Kingdom and the United States. Possibly his first documented influence on a US company was IBM’s option on his patents in 1946.’

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konrad_Zuse

affenkopf September 21, 2012 at 7:58 am

Then why does Google censor autocomplete to remove phrases like ‘torrent’ or ‘piratebay’ by request of companies? Why do they remove torrent sites from search results worldwide or neo nazi sites in Germany?

marris September 21, 2012 at 9:10 am

I don’t think he was saying that there were no computers in Germany, or that he likes Nazis.

I think he was responding to the idea that Google just grabs data on the net. People writing on other sites may be guilty of libel. But the search engine that is accurately saying “lots of websites say X” is telling the truth.

prior_approval September 21, 2012 at 4:41 am

There are a few additional points to this, especially for those that can read German, and are aware of who her husband is – http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wulff-Affäre

Basically, this is not exactly something new – the Wulff family has a now proven history of trying to ensure that the media only report what benefits them, even if the cost in the long term can be quite high. Like Christian Wulff having to resign from the office of Bundespräsident.

A quick excerpt from the link –
‘Anfang Januar 2012 kam Christian Wulff erneut in die Kritik. Die Sonntagsausgabe der Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung berichtete am 1. Januar 2012[4] (gefolgt von der Süddeutschen Zeitung am darauffolgenden Montag), dass Wulff am 12. Dezember 2011 – einen Tag vor Bekanntwerden der Kreditaffäre – versucht habe, bei Kai Diekmann, dem Chefredakteur des Boulevardblatts Bild, und bei Mathias Döpfner, dem Vorstandsvorsitzenden des Axel Springer Verlages, telefonisch und unter Androhung von Strafanzeigen die Berichterstattung zu verhindern.’

‘Early in January 2012, Christian Wulff was again a focus for criticism. The Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung reported on January 1st 2012 (followed by the Süddeutschen Zeitung on the following Monday), that Wulff tried, on am December 12th 2011 – a day before the reporting of the credit affair – to prevent Kai Diekmann, chief editor/publisher of the tabloid [though not an exact translation - USA Today is also a 'tabliod' in this sense] Bild, and Mathias Döpfner, chairman of Axel Springer Verlag, over the telephone, and under threat of criminal complaint [not quite prosecution, in German law] from printing the reports.’

Nothing new here – except that Bettina does not have an official position to use and/or lose, unlike her husband.

Though one must point out in her defense, a lot of extremely sloppy journalism has been performed in the German media. The fact that one Bettina Wulff may have a legal profession as a prostitute in no way means that the wife of a former German President did or does, especially when the only source for this falsehood were search machine results, breathlessly reported without much in the way of fact checking.

In this case, ‘libel’ is quite accurate, if not quite to the NYT v. Sullivan standard, at least in terms of reporting. As for search machines? Well, let’s just say that Bettina Wulff can also sue Bettina Wulff for interfering in her business, and force Bettina Wulff to stop claiming that Bettina Wulff is not a prostitute.

Confusing? Not really, just typically German. Or another example of how the old media just can’t handle the Internet.

As for the German perspective on Facebook parties – don’t get me started, as my wife won’t stop talking about the stupidity involved.

Andreas Moser September 21, 2012 at 4:44 am

Bettina Wulff’s mistake was to drag the nasty rumours on the internet (which you can never stop) into the mainstream media. Many newspapers never would have reported about silly internet rumours by anonymous bloggers, but they will report about a lawsuit of the former First Lady against Google Inc.

affenkopf September 21, 2012 at 4:56 am

To be fair: This rumors were already public. Günter Jauch mentioned them on his show (he got sued too but quickly signed a cease-and-desist letter).

prior_approval September 21, 2012 at 5:16 am

As die Stern, Spiegel, etc.

As for the source, according to Spiegel –

‘Nach Recherchen der “Süddeutschen Zeitung” haben CDU-Kreise in Hannover seit 2006 das Gerücht gestreut, Bettina Wulff habe früher angeblich im Rotlichtmilieu gearbeitet. Die Denunziation sollte offenbar vor allem Christian Wulff treffen, der damals noch CDU-Ministerpräsident in Niedersachsen war. Er hatte in der Partei demnach einige einflussreiche Feinde und auch außerhalb der Partei etliche Gegner.’

‘According to research of the “Süddeutschen Zeitung,” CDU affiliates/circles [more or less] in Hannover have spread rumors since 2006 that Bettina Wulff had earlier worked in the red light district [a very poor translation for 'the framework encompassing the fully legal but not exactly respected profession of prostitute, and its related activities, such as drug dealing, blackmail, extortion, etc.]. The denunciation was intended to primarily strike Christian Wulff, who was still the CDU Ministerpräsident in Niedersachsen. Within the party, he had powerful opponents, as well as various opponents outside of the party.’

http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/bettina-wulff-klagt-gegen-guenther-jauch-und-google-a-854639.html

German politics are always a lot of fun – the CDU is the conservative party (though still quite left in perspective to most things that make Obama a socialist in some American’s eyes), and they seem to feel that implying that the leader of their own party married a prostitute was the most effective way to get him out of office. While ignoring his actual perjury and what can be called bribe taking.

I might add this news is two weeks old, and not big in Germany in any way. Much more coverage has been given to her book tour. Wait, no mention she is promoting a book?

‘Im September 2012 veröffentlichte Wulff ihr autobiografisches Buch Jenseits des Protokolls, in dem sie die Gerüchte um ihr Privatleben zurückweist’

‘In September 2012, Wulff published her autobiography, ‘Buch Jenseits des Protokolls,’ in which she dismissed the rumors about her private life’

http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bettina_Wulff#Ver.C3.B6ffentlichungen

Rumors from people apparently in her husband’s own party, it must be again noted. Probably because party courts (why yes, all German parties run their own court systems to handle issues relating to their members, such as fining them or kicking them out of the party) are unlikely to care all that much, especially with her husband having to resign in disgrace for lying, essentially taking bribes, and abusing his office.

Which, please note, the CDU didn’t care about it – but they did think that attacking his wife would be a good intra-party tactic. Some things about modern conservative parties in the Western world are hard to not notice for those who care to look.

Da September 21, 2012 at 4:50 am

Also Ms Wulff just published a book, her badly written autobiography. Can there be a bigger and cheaper marketing campaign than seeking prosecution of the world’s (and germany’s) most used search engine and germany’s most loved tv-host?
Bettina Wulff is just ‘whoring’ herself to the media using the pitty approach to sell her book. It’s shaming for a former first lady.

prior_approval September 21, 2012 at 5:28 am

Well, what is really shaming is that some in the CDU thought it best to spread rumors that she was a prostitute as a way to attack her husband.

What is really interesting is that a former first lady (not really a German term) has to fend off lies concerning her past before marriage from her own husband’s ‘Parteifreunde’. Note that the attacks did not come from those opposed to the CDU, but from within the CDU itself. And that they thought calling the wife of head of their party in government ‘a whore’ was an effective tactic. To use the German term, you can draw your own ‘Fazit’ about how at least part of the CDU view women who marry successful CDU politicians.

I could draw an interesting parallel to Ole von Beust and how it was ‘conservatives’ that attacked him – though to Hamburg’s voters, the fact he was gay led to an increase in votes when running for office after this became public. Later, he also created the first CDU/Green coaltion at the federal state level (the Greens certainly had no more problem that he was a gay man than many of Hamburg’s voters, and were more than willing to work with him).

Doc Merlin September 21, 2012 at 6:32 am

Its an effective tactic, unless the husband is willing to call those out who do it.
It was used against president Jackson, but he personally shot some of those who called his wife a whore, so it was less effective than it could have been.

jj September 21, 2012 at 9:28 am

Yes, that’s the interesting thing – why is he not naming his oponents with the responsibility for the rumour? Still a presidential attitude or what?

NAME REDACTED September 21, 2012 at 9:50 am

If you name names you end up looking like a conspiracy theorist. However, those with power can name names and not look crazy, but by the time they get to power, they at times have habits that make it difficult.

Obama didn’t have these habits, because he operated under “Rules for Radicals.” Furthermore he was able to operate via proxies. This made him very effective at combating recalcitrant hedge funds during the auto-bailout. (He didn’t even have to name names in most cases, just threaten to.)

Da September 21, 2012 at 6:43 am

Things is: She doesn’t ‘have to’ defend herself against any rumors, because by the time she actually started ‘defending’ herself, all those rumors were practically forgotten by the media and had never made it to the mainstream of public knowledge.

It was the very ‘defense’ – coincidentally falling in the weeks before the publishing of her autobiography – that brought those rumors into the wide public and into heavy publicizing.

It’s simple marketing. How many thousands will buy a book describing the life of a “first lady for a few months and how sad I was the whole time”, but how many hundreds of thousands will buy a book about the “rumored first lady ex-whore and her inside stories form Berlin”?

It’s just about the money, so the cute couple can buy their hotel nights with their own money in the future…

prior_approval September 21, 2012 at 7:01 am

‘She doesn’t ‘have to’ defend herself against any rumors’
Assuming the normal round of publication publicity for a book (Deutschlandfunk and SWR1 have certainly featured her), it is not exactly unreasonable to try to have the top google linking actions such as aoutcomplete reference something other than ‘prostitute.’ The rumors may have died down, particularly after her husband resigned in disgrace, but wanting to have your name attached to something other than lies is understandable.

Whether it is preventable is another question. As for assuming that a woman wants to be considered a prostitute as a way to increase book sales – well, you are quite the model MR commenter, actually.

Da September 21, 2012 at 7:37 am

Judging by her actions that is the only conclusion that makes sense.

So am I a ‘model MR commenter’ because I assume a causal relationship between a persons actions and a persons goals? Specifically if said person has a husband who was a prominent politician for years and has a host of friends in the field of media, so there is a lot of knowledge about how these things work available to her?

Maybe.

8 September 21, 2012 at 7:09 am

It was only earlier this year that Google autocomplete was charged with being anti-Semitic.

prior_approval September 21, 2012 at 8:08 am

‘So am I a ‘model MR commenter’ because I assume a causal relationship between a persons actions and a persons goals? Specifically if said person has a husband who was a prominent politician for years and has a host of friends in the field of media, so there is a lot of knowledge about how these things work available to her?’
Nope – it is because you, apparently sincerely, claimed a woman wanted be associated with prostitution as a way to increase book sales. And because you apparently are either

1. Unable to actually understand what you wrote – ‘How many thousands will buy a book describing the life of a “first lady for a few months and how sad I was the whole time”, but how many hundreds of thousands will buy a book about the “rumored first lady ex-whore and her inside stories form Berlin”?’ though you had no problem writing it.

2. Seriously think that this is how books are sold, especially when it is a woman author – ‘here is a lot of knowledge about how these things work available to her’ Because really, if you are suggesting that this typical of how these things work, you are again a perfect MR commenter.

And considering the source of the original rumors, possibly you are even a member of good standing in the CDU. Because I have yet to hear anyone in the Greens or SPD have any problems with the idea that the plain truth she was never a prostitute, and that those repeating such lies are essentially vicious rumormongers. Easy for the Greens and SPD, after all – it is just the truth, and they never bothered to tell such lies, so they never had to deny them. Instead, they nailed Wulff because of his lying, but that is another story.

Fabio Franco September 21, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Somebody is probably already doing a PhD thesis on this type of thing: type “americans are a”, “americans are b” into the Google search box and go through the letters. You could do whole sociological studies of who thinks what of whom. It’d be an interesting read, I think. Here is just a taste of what this would be like:

Google Suggest for “americans are”: dumb, not stupid, fat, arrogant, annoying, awesome, angry, brainwashed, beautiful, bad at geography, crazy, cold, cool, cocky, dumb, delusional, destroying america, dumbasses, entitled, ethnocentric, english, easily manipulated, fat, fat and lazy, fake, friendly, getting dumber, greedy, getting fatter, hot, hypocrites, huge, hated, ignorant, immigrants, individualistic, intolerant, jerks, judgemental, lazy, loud, lonely, lucky, materialistic, mean, miserable, not stupid, not free, nice, narcissistic, overworked, overweight, obsessed with fast food, overmedicated, prudes, paranoid, poor, pathetic, rude, rich, rising, rude and selfish, spoiled, selfish, sheep, so enamored of equality, the best, the stupidest people on earth, too busy, unhappy, uptight, uneducated, unfriendly, vain, very religious, vulger, very friendly, workaholics, weird, wasteful, weak, xenophobic, yanks, stupid yahoo, zombies

Google Suggest for “Brazilians are”: not hispanic, so rude, not latinos, annoying, arrogant, african, always late, bad at video games, black, considered what, cool, caucasian, dumb, disgusting, dancing, easy, everywhere, european, ethnicity, friendly, ruining facebook, known for, got talent, gaming, happy, hispanic, not hispanic, overrated, on orkut, of african descent, portuguese, part black, poor, painful, racist, rich, retarded, so rude, so beautiful, superficial, scum, the coolest people in the world, the worst gamers, ugly, understand spanish, visiting usa, what race, white, what religion.

As for Brazilian women: so beautiful, the most beautiful, [but] overrated.

Harold September 21, 2012 at 4:16 pm

I don’t think prostitutes have a case against google for being associated with Bettina.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: