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Japanese Court Orders Google Censor Search Algorithm

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, April 17 2013

Screengrab of Google autocomplete in action

A Japanese court has ordered Google change autocomplete results that one man complains associate his name with defamatory phrases. When Google users type in the plaintiff's name, the search engine autofills criminal acts the man asserts he never committed. The plaintiff claimed that these search results caused him to lose his job.

Although the courts did not determine these search results directly caused loss of employment – and so did not award the plaintiff the original $144,000 demanded in damages – they ordered Google to change the results and to pay 300,000 yen ($3,100) in damages for “mental anguish.”

"This [autocomplete feature] can lead to irretrievable damage, such as job loss or bankruptcy, just by displaying search results that constitute defamation or violation of the privacy of an individual person or small and medium-size companies," the plaintiff’s lawyer, Hiroyuki Tomita, was quoted as saying last year.

What’s interesting is that it was not the list of search results that apparently caused the loss of employment. The plaintiff alleges that clicking on the results led to a defamatory website. One might ask why they didn’t take the owner of the website to court, instead of Google. A TechnologyBlogged.com post suggests individuals and companies “never threaten legal action unless one person is systematically trying to drag your name through Internet mud.”

Because Google does not have physical data centers in Japan, the court cannot compel the company to comply. Although Google has told the media it was studying the ruling, in 2012 the same Japanese court issued a temporary injunction to de-link the same man’s name from autocomplete results that Google did not follow. At other times Google has indicated that the company is not responsible for autocomplete results because they are generated by an algorithm. For those reasons, it seems unlikely Google will comply of their own volition this time.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.