French court finds Google guilty of libel; appeal planned

A French court has found Google guilty of libel as a result of the company's automated search suggestions. Google plans to appeal the ruling, a company spokeswoman said Monday.

The Superior Court of Paris ordered Google to pay €5,000 in damages to a man named only as "Mr. X," and to cease suggesting certain additional search terms to those searching for Mr. X's name.

The court's decision throws the spotlight on Google's oft-repeated claim that it exerts no editorial control over search results, such as the placement of articles on its Google News pages, and that all such decisions are made by computer algorithms. The court's ruling came to light when French law blog Legalis.net published its commentary on the ruling last Thursday.

At issue is Google's Autocomplete service, formerly known as Google Suggest. As people type in the first few letters of their search request, Google autocompletes those words, and suggests additional words that go with them, so for example someone typing "new y" would see suggestions that they search for "New York Times," "New York Post," "New York" or "New Yorker."

Until recently, if anyone searched for Mr. X's given name and the first few letters of his family name, Google would complete his name and suggest a number of suggested additional search terms, including "rape", "rapist", "satanist," "sentenced" and "prison," the court document noted.

The suggestions are not made by Google, but by its users, said company spokeswoman Anne-Gabrielle Dauba-Pantanacce: "All of the queries shown in Autocomplete have been typed previously by other Google users."

"These searches are algorithmically determined based on a number of purely objective factors, including popularity of search terms," Dauba-Pantanacce said.

The court ruling took issue with that line of argument, stating that "algorithms or software begin in the human mind before they are implemented," and noting that Google presented no actual evidence that its search suggestions were generated solely from previous related searches, without human intervention.

Google has temporarily complied with the court order by ceasing to present the disputed search terms, including "rapist" and "prison," alongside Mr. X's name while it appeals the ruling, Dauba-Pantanacce said.

That such terms came to be associated with Mr. X's name is a result of an earlier court case, following an allegation that he had raped a 17-year-old girl. The court found that there was no evidence to support that allegation, but did try him on the lesser charge of "corruption of a minor." On Nov. 3, 2008, he was found guilty of that offense, fined €15,000 and sentenced to a year in prison, although that was changed on appeal to a €50,000 fine and a suspended sentence of three years in prison.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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