Germany's former first lady Bettina Wulff has sued Google over its autocomplete function. As people type words into the search engine, Google suggests additional terms that have been popular in previous searches. For example, after typing in "Boston," Google's autocomplete recommends "Boston weather" and the "Boston Globe" newspaper.
However, if you enter Ms. Wulff's name, the top suggestions are "Bettina Wulff escort" and the German word for prostitute.
A century ago, such rumors might have remained as whispers among the political elite. Now, baseless accusations can appear for even unsuspecting Google searchers. The Internet has always attracted unsavory gossip, but Wulff's lawsuit attempts to keep such smears out of Google's autocomplete.
Her odds are slim. German courts have sided with Google in five previous cases – mostly over people's names being linked to "fraud" or "bankruptcy." Google won these cases because of how its autocomplete works.
"Google does not suggest these terms – all of the queries shown in Autocomplete have been typed previously by other Google users," writes company spokeswoman Amanda Chang in an e-mail.
The search engine relies on algorithms to rank the popularity of previous searches. The most common phrases become the top suggestions. Location can affect the order – a Google search done in Washington, D.C., might find different autocomplete results than one done in Washington State. Breaking news can also sway results – searching for "earthquake" shortly after a major tremor will pull up different suggestions than the same search hours before.
Google has blacklisted certain words. It blocks autocomplete terms related to pornography, violence, hate speech, and illegal file sharing. When countries outlaw certain kinds of speech, such as Germany's ban on Holocaust denial, Google will remove those terms from its country-specific listings.
However, the company stresses that it does not police the algorithm beyond these few areas. This hands-off policy protects Google from lawsuits such as Wulff's. According to this line of thinking, the search engine can't be guilty of libel if it has no editorial oversight.
In fact, Wulff may be hurting her own cause. By publicizing the problem, she's inadvertently encouraging curious people to search for "Bettina Wulff escort," which will further buoy the term in Google's autocomplete. A poll for the German tabloid Bild am Sonntag found that 81 percent of Germans say they had never heard of these red-light allegations before Wulff's new book, "Beyond the Protocol," refuted them.
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[Editor's note: This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the October 8 issue of the Monitor weekly magazine.]