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 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:
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:
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: