Here’s a lovely issue that could not have arisen fifteen or twenty years ago. A man in Japan has obtained an injunction ordering Google to alter the auto-complete function so as not to associate his name with crimes (AFP via physorg.com; see also Japan Times). Google has refused to comply.
“A Japanese court issued a provisional order requesting Google to delete specific terms from Auto-Complete,” a spokesman for the California-based company confirmed on Monday. “The judge did not require Google to completely suspend the Auto-Complete function,” he continued. “Google is currently reviewing the order.” Tomita said that spelling his client’s name in a Google query box in Japan resulted in suggested searches that lead to results implying the man is guilty of crimes.
Imagine that every time someone typed your name into the Google search box, it was completed with the words ‘wants to kill Obama’ or ‘has sex with babies’. The suggested search phrase (as Google notes) isn’t, of course, written by anyone. It’s generated automatically. Moreover, a search phrase is not, one would think, an assertion. In offering it as an option, Google isn’t claiming, whenever “[Your name] has sex with babies” shows up in the auto-complete list, that you have sex with babies.
…though it’s clear that suspending auto-complete altogether would not be reasonable, still the cost to Google (and to its users) of bringing it about that certain phrases never show up would be very small compared to Google’s revenues ($10 billion in the third quarter of 2011). On the other hand, according to the Japan Times story, “more than 10,000 items defaming or disparaging him show up” in the auto-complete list. It would seem that the only, or at least the easy, way to ensure that the name isn’t associated with unsavory acts would be to suspend auto-complete whenever the name is entered.
But wait. Consider this: the man’s lawyer is named Hiroyuki Tomita. That is also the name of a gymnast who has won three gold medals at the Olympics. If Hiroyuki the lawyer were to win an injunction against Google like the one he is seeking on behalf of his client, auto-complete would be turned off for Hiroyuki the gymnast as well.
I don’t think any of us would want people to see “[myname] eats babies” every time they searched on our name. But there doesn’t seem to be any way to prevent that from happening except by significantly reducing the utility of the auto-complete function. What should the tradeoff be — or is there any at all?
Note: A few years ago there was a fad for Google-bombing: this consisted in bringing it about that a search on “miserable failure”, for example, would yield as its first result the website of the Republican Party. Unlike the auto-complete function, however, Google-bombing associates one term with another only indirectly. You must search on “miserable failure” for the connection to be made. So Google-bombing is mostly treated as a joke (the manipulation of page-rankings is, of course, not a joke for Google), though one early Google-bomb did call forth a cease-and-desist letter.