Hong Kong tycoon can sue Google over autocomplete feature, court rules

Albert Yeung has been demanding Google remove suggested search terms connecting his name to Hong Kong's triads

A Hong Kong court has opened the way for a local tycoon to sue Google over its autocomplete feature for adding "triad," a term for Chinese criminal gangs, and "perversion" to his name when searched.

Google has been arguing that the U.S. company is not liable for the way the autocomplete feature offers suggestions based on popular searches. But on Tuesday, the High Court of Hong Kong dismissed Google's claims, and ruled that the company could be held responsible for the content it recommends to users.

The legal dispute comes from Albert Yeung, chairman of Hong Kong-based Emperor Group, who began demanding in 2012 that Google remove the suggested search terms from his name, claiming that they are defamatory.

In addition to the autocomplete feature, Google's search engine will also offer a list of related search terms that connect Yeung's name to Hong Kong crime organizations Sun Yee On and 14K, said an online copy of the court's ruling.

Google claimed that the features try to offer helpful results by reflecting the search activity of past users. "Google Inc is a mere passive facilitator in respect of the words/images seen on its domains," the company's lawyer argued, according to the court document.

But judge Marlene Ng ruled that Yeung still had a strong enough case to warrant suing Google.

"The advantages of having easy access to a rich store of information are many, and they have been widely applauded," Ng said. "But such benefit comes at a price; any risk of misinformation can spread easily as users forage in the Web."

Yeung is seeking damages for libel, claiming that the alleged defamation has damaged his reputation. The judge said if Yeung wins a defamation lawsuit against Google the damages could be high.

"A jury (or judge if the matter is to be tried by judge alone) may consider that such returns by the Autocomplete and Relates Searches features made publicly available to all internet users and persisted after being served with take-down notification merit a substantial award," Ng wrote.

Google declined to comment on the ruling. The company's autocomplete feature has also gotten the company entangled in legal trouble in Europe over similar charges related to libel. Last year, a German court ruled that Google had to remove search suggestions if the results were offensive.

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