Google Loses German Case Over Autocomplete Function

Google Inc., operator of the world’s largest Internet search engine, lost a case in Germany’s top civil court over how its autocomplete function adds words to searches.

If alerted about libelous words that are added to a name entered in the search slot, Google has to block them, the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe said, overturning two lower court rulings. The website had added “Scientology” and “fraud” to the plaintiff’s name, the court said in a statement on its website today.

Google’s autocomplete function has come into focus in Germany after the wife of former president Christian Wulff sued Google because the search engine added words to her name that referred to red light district and escort services. Her name is still being autocompleted with the German word for “red light.” Her case is pending at a Hamburg court.

“The search additions affect the plaintiff’s privacy rights as they convey the statement that there is a relationship between the plaintiff and the negative words,” the Karlsruhe court said. “If that statement was untrue, the plaintiff’s rights would be violated.”

Kay Oberbeck, a German spokesman for Google, said the Mountain View, California-based company is disappointed and surprised, given that many courts ruled in the opposite way. He called it “incomprehensible” that Google can be held liable for words entered by users.

Frequent Terms

Starting in April 2009, users who entered search words see a window predicting what the search may be about. The suggestions are created by an algorithm based on how frequently the terms had been used before, the top court said.

The plaintiff, the founder and chief executive officer of a web-based company selling dietary supplements, noticed in 2010 that the terms “Scientology” and “fraud” were suggested when his name was entered in the search slot. He said he isn’t linked to the religious group nor is he being probed for fraud, according to the top court statement.

The case was sent back to the lower court to investigate additional facts.

Today’s case is BGH, VI ZR 269/12.

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