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.”
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.