Is Google Afraid of the Big Bad Wulff? No

Not to be out shadowed by scandals connected to her husband's commercial dealings, former German first lady Bettina Wulff has filed a defamation suit with the Hamburg district court against Google for connecting her name to slanderous search terms such as 'prostitution' and 'escort' (see figure 1 below). It is alleged that the suggested terms perpetuate an ill-founded rumour started over two years ago, only days before the election of her husband to President in 2010, that she was once a lady of the night.

Interestingly, Wulff's autobiography 'Beyond the Protocol' includes a whole chapter saucily entitled 'The Rumours', that allows her to rebut the allegations at length and sell her secrets for a reasonable fee that no doubt will be put in part towards legal costs. The book will be published by the time most IPKat readers view this post and can be purchased for £12.80 from all good e-book-providing online multinational electronic commerce company retailers. But in the meantime, what are the chances of the action being successful?

Die Spiegel reports that her lawyers have already found success in issuing 34 cease-and-desist orders against various bloggers and journalists. However, Google unsurprisingly have refused to remove the damaging terms. The defaming villain in this case is Google's automatic algorithm autocomplete, that handy and occasionally unsettling cognitive feature provided by many search engines and web browsers that shave off seconds of precious typing time by speeding up human-computer interaction. Google explains how the feature works as follows; 'Predicted queries are algorithmically determined based on a number of purely algorithmic factors (including popularity of search terms) without human intervention. The autocomplete data is updated frequently to offer fresh and rising search queries'. Therefore, no human thought, opinion or value judgement is being made. Only the expression of the great collective consciousness (or should that be unconscious?).
Figure 1
However, previous judgments relating to the algorithm have not determined the issue in Google's favour. Late last year the company was held liable for the ne'er-do-well suggestions of its automatic search feature and ordered to pay a lot of euros by a French court for the inclusion of the defaming word 'escroc' (crook/swindler in English) in relation to insurance company Lyonnaise de Garantie. The court held that Google should exercise human control over the functioning of words suggested by its search engine [inadvertently authorising the next generation cybernectic organism web browser]. French text of the judgment is available here and Google Translate pour des gens qui ne savent pas lire français ici. Further, only six months ago a Tokyo court approved an injunction demanding Google remove certain terms from autocomplete, after the company reportedly refused a request to delete some of the words by a defamed victim, who allegedly lost his job because of the associated search terms. In fact, the more this Kat started digging on the issue, the more cases that surfaced finding Google liable for its occasionally defamatory algorithm in various jurisdictions, from Argentina to Italy via a settlement with an Irish hotel

Yet the plot thickens...only a few days ago Google upped the ante in its policing of autocomplete suggestions for Private Bay, host of copyright infringing material extraordinaire, by removing domain shortcuts.

So, getting back to Bettina, little chance of success for the Google giants. So who might take up the cause against the pesky autocomplete next? This Kat did some of her own empirical research and found at least one potential luminary that might have a beef (see figure 2 below). Not wanting to add fuel to the fire, she hasn't included figure 3.

Figure 2
Personally, I'm tempted to sidle with Google on this one. If autocomplete really works the way they say, then we'll just have to make do with the fact that some people enjoy reading trash. The action is akin to taking on the whole global gossiping network and internet using humankind. However, that is not without the caveat that some transparent mechanisms need to be put in place for all search engine providers who will manipulate search terms for one cause but not another.  

The best song from Rumours.
The best kind of rumours.
The best football rumours.
Is Google Afraid of the Big Bad Wulff? No Is Google Afraid of the Big Bad Wulff? No Reviewed by Kate Manning on Wednesday, September 12, 2012 Rating: 5


  1. Autocomplete appears to repeat popular searches which in turn encourages others to click on the search term offered thereby escalating the issue. The users who write these search terms initially into such a public system are the source of the defamatory remarks. I suggest google hand over the IP addresses for these people so that court action can be taken against them.

    I personally never defame anyone by entering such statements and always phrase my search terms as a question to avoid these problems

  2. As a PS: Kay Overbeck, a spokesperson for Google Germany has told the German media that Google has won five similar cases in German courts and will thus not change its practice.

    In the meantime, German media is scrutinizing the content of her newly published book (Beyond Protocol) with the Bild Zeitung elaborating on "how Mrs Wulff had to suppress her own needs during her husband's time in office". :)

    Nonetheless Mrs Wulff made it to No 1 on

  3. Superb use of the browser tabs in Figures 1 and 2!


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