Another day another problem for Google. This time around it involves Google Instant – the recent addition where searching in Google leads to it auto-completing your search using previous search terms by other users as well as language and location, as shown below:
For most people this is just plain annoying, but for an unnamed Japanese man, it’s been nothing but trouble. The auto-complete feature allows you to see – sometimes uncomfortably – what other people have been using the infinite powers of Google to find. But the man in question discovered that Google auto-completes his name with crimes that he says he has not committed. Part of the problem no doubt is that he isn’t the only person in the world with his name, but with just one of Google’s suggestions returning over 10,000 individual results, it’s quite a big problem. Such a problem, in fact, that according to his lawyers the search results, thanks to employers increasingly conducting their own checks using the Internet, cost the man his job and resulted in him being turned down for others.
With Google itself turning down his request to remove the terms, the Japanese man decided to forge ahead and sought an injunction through the Japanese courts. The Tokyo court approved it and declared that Google now needs to suspend it’s auto-complete results. While it sounds cut-and-dry, Google being Google (and overlooking their own “Don’t be evil” mantra) have decided to ignore the ruling. The Japan Times reports Google as saying that it “will not be regulated by Japanese law” and that “the case does not warrant deleting the auto-complete suggestions.” Why? Because “the suggested words were being selected mechanically, not intentionally, and thus do not violate his privacy”. On the other hand, it could be argued that if Google wants to be permitted to be an active search provider in Japan, it needs to accept that it should be compliant with the country’s laws. If nothing else, the man who sought the injunction is likely to suffer from this far more than Google would if it suspended just a few terms. His lawyer embellishes on this: “This can lead to irretrievable damage, such as job loss or bankruptcy, just by displaying search results that constitute defamation or violation of the privacy of an individual person or small and medium-size companies.”
Although Google Instant blocks offensive or otherwise untoward phrases being returned with the use of strict filters, this isn’t an isolated incident. In 2010 Google lost a lawsuit in France due to the suggestions that appeared on its Google Suggest. In that case, the plaintiff’s name prompted the words “rapist” and “satanist”. The man in question had been convicted on appeal for corrupting a minor, but according to the AFP, the “conviction was not yet definitive” when Google’s suggestions appeared. In losing that case Google had to make a “symbolic payment” of one Euro and to ensure it took steps to eliminate the chances of it happening again. As with the case of the Japanese man, Google insisted in 2010 that it would appeal the decision.
Prior to that case in 2010 Google lost another case in France that were once again related to its suggestions. Search Engine Land carries the story that Google was ordered by a French appeals court to remove the word arnaque, which means “scam”, from its Suggest list when people searched for the Centre National Privé de Formation a Distance (CNFDI). Google’s response to the ruling was that the Suggest tool was automated, but the appeals court rejected this by stating that as Google permitted people to report offensive terms, the search giant has control over the terms that appear.