Google has to delete offensive autocomplete results, German federal court rules

Google has to remove defamatory autocomplete results when notified, the court ruled

Google has to remove search suggestions from autocomplete in Germany if the results are offensive, the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe ruled Tuesday.

The court upheld a complaint by the founder and CEO of a company that sells nutritional supplements and cosmetics on the Internet, who was only identified as R.S. in a news release.

In 2010, the complainant noted that when he searched for his full name on Google.de the autocomplete functionality suggested search terms where his full name was combined with "Scientology" and with the German word for fraud, the court said. By showing these results, the plaintiff felt his personal rights and business reputation were violated because he is not in any way related to Scientology and the search accuses him of fraud, while no connection between the plaintiff and Scientology or fraud can be seen, the court said.

Therefore, Google should stop using the two terms as suggestions in the autocomplete results, the plaintiff demanded.

In May 2012, the Higher Regional Court in Cologne ruled in favor of Google. It found that the autocomplete terms did not infringe the plaintiff's privacy, but the Federal Court of Justice overturned that ruling.

Google has to remove the search terms but does not have to alter its software, the court ruled. It also does not have to verify generated search terms in advance for possible breaches, but Google has to remove offensive or defamatory autocomplete results when it is notified, the court ruled.

Google's autocomplete suggests what the user might be searching for. The results that are shown as a user types a search term are a reflection of the search activity of all Web users and the content of pages indexed by Google, according to Google.

"We are disappointed with the decision from the German Supreme Court," said a Google spokesman in an emailed statement. "We believe that Google should not be held liable for terms that appear in autocomplete as these are predicted by computer algorithms based on searches from previous users, not by Google itself. We are waiting for the written grounds to review the decision in detail."

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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