Tycoon can sue Google over auto-complete, as Hong Kong joins global censorship push

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Hong Kong plutocrat Albert Yeung Sau-shing doesn’t like when the word “triad” — which signifies organized crime — appears near his name as a search suggestion. So he sued Google(s goog) for libel.

This week, Yeung succeeded as a Hong Kong court judge blessed his lawsuit, and declared that Google can be held responsible for the search suggestions, even though the service is completely automated. The decision, which cites recent pro-censorship rulings in Europe and Canada, is part of a trend that makes it easier for powerful people to remove unpleasant material from the internet.

A billionaire gets a new tool to cover up his past

Albert Yeung Sau-shing is best known for his business empire that includes jewelry and entertainment companies, and he regularly appears on Forbes lists as one of Hong Kong’s richest people. But according to news reports cited by Wikipedia, Yeung is also known for his role in various racketeering crimes.

The public’s interest in these criminal escapades likely explain why a search for Yeung’s name in Google produces the third suggestion in the following list:

Albert Yeung triad

After Yeung discovered those results in 2012, he moved to sue Google for defamation and this week, in a 100-page decision (embedded below), Hong Kong judge Marlene Ng refused Google’s request to throw out the lawsuit.

According to Ng, Google can not claim immunity from libel by saying that the search suggestions are entirely automated. Instead, she found that Google faced the same obligations as a traditional publisher, and that Yeung can seek money for damage to his reputation.

Ng’s introduction to the decision explains that “googling” can make life easier but:

Left unmonitored, there may be disquieting consequences through misinformation and unaddressed complaints, especially when the search process throws up unsavory information associated with a person or entity that proves to be derogatory and false.

The judge’s censorship solution, however, is troubling because Google’s autocomplete tool is not libel in the normal sense of the world, but rather a reflection of what people are saying about a given subject — the subject in this case is Albert Yeung. And just like any public discussion, the things people say may be true, false or somewhere in between.

See, for instance, what happens if you start typing a search for President Obama’s music tastes:

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 4.32.42 PM(Obama does not adhere to the Islam faith, of course, but enough people appear to think he does that search suggestions to this effect pop up. Should he have a right to censor those?)

The point is that by stifling search suggestions, Judge Ng’s ruling may give prominent figures like Yeung a new tool to silence public opinion they disagree with. At the same time, the decision cites — and builds on — a worrying worldwide rush to censor Google.

A new trend of censoring Google in courts around the world

The Hong Kong ruling is not the first time Google has faced libel charges for its search suggestions: in Italy, for instance, a court last year ordered the company to filter results that produced “con man” and “fraud” besides someone’s name.

The Yeung decision is significant, however, because it comes at a time of growing concern over a controversial new “right to be forgotten” rule in Europe that lets people order Google to delete search results.

Critics, including me, have warned that European decision could lead to new attacks on Google and free speech, and that the decision would do more to help the powerful hide their misdeeds than to protect the privacy of ordinary people.

And, indeed, this appears to be exactly what’s happening as figures like Yeung and former F-1 boss (and S&M orgy enthusiast) Max Mosley are now enjoying unprecedented success in remaking Google search results.

Perhaps worst of all, courts in countries with a strong tradition of civil liberties are helping to legitimize this new wave of censorship — and embolden strongmen in less free places to further crack down on access to online information. The Hong Kong decision, for instance, cites not only the European “right to be forgotten” court ruling, but also Google-related censorship orders in Australia and British Columbia.

Such pro-censorship precedents are already helping courts in Hong Kong — where the rule of law is under threat from China — justify decisions like the one that sided with Yeung.

Finally, there is the even greater risk that the censorship damage will spread beyond Google. Soon, the Albert Yeungs of the world may also try to strip unpleasant information from sites like Wikipedia — which this week warned that the internet could become “riddled with memory holes.”

Google declined to comment. Here’s the Hong Kong ruling:

Hong Kong Google Ruling

9 Comments

shivraj

This is clearly an undesirable consequence of scooping up and indexing everything that exists on internet. “Google Bombs” in the past had been extreme examples of how search results can be manipulated.

Search algo’s need to get smart enough to separate and serve the wheat only and not the chaff as well. Till that happens such conflicting situations will continue to arise. Not every nation has the same flavour of the freedom of speech as the one in the US.

Alan Paige

If you make a robot that goes out on the street and kills someone, is it legitimate to say “it wasn’t me, it was the robot”?

Apart from that, in most legal systems you are presumed to intend the natural consequences of your acts. Google must know that if enough people enter a defamatory search term, it will appear in auto complete.

janon

you’re both either nuts or carrying a bias. Google clearly states that autocomplete is only showing you what OTHER people are searching for. they didnt build a robot capable of killing. what a lunatic analogy. in the case with this story huge numbers of people associate this guy with a specific triad. maybe true, maybe not. Google only offers “here is what people are looking for” What you two would seem to want is a system that would purely benefit the powerful or the corrupt. good job.

Eri Fernandez

http://freelancing-stories.com
You’ve got to be kidding me. Mr. Chinese Guy must know that it was a search traffic’s result, not the Google’s fault. I think he’s not familiar with meta description, although I am writing some SEO articles, I think those people searching his name knows his true colors. Why not?

mike

>> …Wikipedia — which this week warned that the internet could become “riddled with memory holes.”

Who made the claim that the Internet must not have any memory holes? Is that the purpose of the Internet — to have a complete record of history for all time? What about those who choose personal privacy over having their name written in the book of Internet history, which might contain information that could be either true or false.

I’m sure some people refused to have their history contained within Encyclopedia Britannica volumes. And that shouldn’t be a problem, because there are other information sources as well. Likewise with Wikipedia, or the Internet for that matter. The Internet is not the “say all” of reality, not should it be.

Tchael

I’m all for removing non-truths, but there is no legitimate reason to forget the truth. If you are unhappy with your past and wish to remove it, you’ve been taught a lesson to better think out your actions.

A large majority of people asking to be “forgotten” on Google are people with criminal history. People who have been convicted of manslaughter, sex crimes, theft, etc. That is information that should stay public.

If you wish to not be remembered, it’s quite easy. Live in a remote part of the world, do nothing important to be remembered by, and stay off the internet.

mike

Wrong. Criminal offenses can be expunged by court order, and offenses/crimes can be deemed to have never occurred, as well as court records being permanently sealed and inaccessible from the public.

If that information is sealed by court order, but remains on the Internet, in order to stay compliant with the law, Internet sources having said information would best avoid future issues by having resources dedicated in the removal of such information. If not, prepare for a lawsuit like one in this article.

Again, the Internet should not be the “say all” of history or reality.

mike

>> (Obama does not adhere to the Islam faith, of course, but enough people appear to think he does that search suggestions to this effect pop up. Should he have a right to censor those?)

He should. Why? Because might (i.e., “enough people appear[ing] to think he does [adhere to the Islam faith]”) does not make right (i.e., does not make it true). If a majority of people claim that Obama is a liar, whether true or not, such a claim without merit defames him. Unfortunately for Google, Google’s search suggestions don’t provide proof/merits along with the suggestions they do provide.

Granted, Google is a private company and can provide any service to the public they want, as long as it abides by the law. Therefore, if it is determined to bit be illegal to defame a person, whether directly or indirectly, for example via a tool under your control/design, then Google must take the necessary steps to remain legal by not defaming a person with their search suggestions. Tough to do and probably impossible feat for Google, yes, but nonetheless, with freedom (of being in business and creating valuable services to society) comes responsibility (of being in compliance with the law of the society).

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