Google’s autocomplete search function is the subject of several legal disputes around the world in which plaintiffs accuse the search engine giant of defamation and invasion of privacy. The libel allegedly occurs when a subject’s name is typed into the search bar and Google autocompletes the query with an undesirable phrase added on. For example, an Australian doctor sued Google after the he noticed that Google associated his name, “guy hingston,” with the word “bankrupt” as a suggestion.
Google’s primary defense in these cases is that their suggested autocompletions are not generated out of malice or any sort of sentient process. Instead, search queries are recommended based on the frequency by which users searched for particular phrases in the past. Generally, courts have sided with Google and not found instances of defamation; however, a German court recently ruled in favor of an anonymous plaintiff whose name was accompanied with the phrases “fraud” and “scientology” (see report here).
One method of avoiding potential privacy violations offered in previous rulings is prohibiting Google from adding certain words or phrases to names. If this change is implemented, Google’s autocomplete feature will almost certainly become less effective at predicting user’s desired search queries. Moreover, anticipating potentially libelous phrases is difficult ex ante, making attempts to eliminate offensive suggestions difficult if not impractical.