Google has been ordered by a German federal court to clean up the auto-complete results its search engine suggests.
The court said Google must ensure terms generated by auto-complete are not offensive or defamatory.
The court case was started by an unnamed German businessman who found that Google.de linked him with “scientology” and “fraud”.
Google must now remove defamatory word combinations when told about them, said the court.
A person’s privacy would be violated if the associations conjured up by auto-complete were untrue, the federal court said in a statement about the ruling.
However, it added, this did not mean that Google had to sanitize its entire index.
Bettina Wulff, wife of former German president Christian Wulff, sued Google because auto-complete suggested words linking her to escort services
“The operator is, as a basic principle, only responsible when it gets notice of the unlawful violation of personal rights,” it said.
The ruling on auto-complete overturns two earlier decisions by lower German courts.
In the past, Google has defended itself by arguing that it has no control over the combinations of words that auto-complete suggests. Instead, it said, these were automatically generated by the frequency with which other people were looking for such keywords.
A Google spokesman said he was “disappointed and surprised” by the court’s decision, in an interview with Bloomberg. He said it was “incomprehensible” that Google was going to be held liable for the searches carried out by users.
The ruling could also have a bearing on another case involving auto-complete. Bettina Wulff, wife of former German president Christian Wulff, sued Google because auto-complete suggested words linking her to escort services.
Bettina Wulff denies ever working as a prostitute and has fought several legal cases over the accusation. The case against Google is due to be heard soon in a Hamburg court.
Bettina Wulff, wife of former German President Christian Wulff, has included Google in legal action to stop rumors about her private life.
When the name Bettina Wulff is typed into Google’s search engine, suggested search terms include the words “prostitute” and “red light district”.
Google says the auto-generated text reflects what others are already searching for online.
Bettina Wulff denies she has ever worked as a prostitute.
Bettina Wulff, wife of former German President Christian Wulff, has included Google in legal action to stop rumors about her private life
German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported Bettina Wulff had given a sworn declaration denying all allegations relating to prostitution or escort work before her marriage.
The rumors have spread both online and in various media outlets.
It has been reported they were started in order to disrupt her husband Christian Wulff’s political career.
German newspaper Die Spiegel reports she has spent over two years fighting allegations she was once employed as an escort.
“Her lawyers have already issued 34 successful cease-and-desist orders, including one against a prominent German television personality this weekend,” the paper notes.
The same paper says a defamation suit was launched against Google last week.
Google Northern Europe spokeswoman Kay Oberbeck said the site’s search terms were “algorithmically generated” and “include the popularity of the entered search terms”.
“All terms that appear have been previously entered by Google users,” she added in a statement.
The same text generates in rival search engine Bing.com.
In March 2012 Google was ordered to disable the autocomplete function relating to search results for an unnamed man in Japan, who said his name was being associated with crimes he had not committed.