In January this year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Dr Guy Hingston, a Port Macquarie surgeon was suing Google for defamation over an autocomplete search suggestion that he believes has cost him clients. Typing his name into Google’s search engine brings up ‘Guy Hingston bankrupt’ as one of the autocomplete suggestions.
Dr Hingston commenced the case in the US District Court in California, in late December last year. The Digital Media Law Project set out an excellent overview of Dr Hingston’s allegations against Google on their blog. Jeff Hermes reported that:
“This is not the first lawsuit against Google based upon autocomplete results, we have written before about suits in other countries. However, this is the first such suit filed in a United States court, raising the question of whether the suit could succeed under the laws of California and the United States, including the First Amendment.”
Last week, Radio National’s Breakfast program aired a segment ‘Google Under Fire’ covering the rise of litigation against Google concerning unflattering Google auto-complete suggestions. This year alone, Google has lost cases in Japan and Germany in relation to its autocomplete function.
The German court ruled that Google must remove the infringing material from its autocomplete function, but only once it becomes aware of the “unlawful violation of the personal rights”. Another case in Germay has attracted significant attention but has yet to be heard. A former German first lady, Bettina Wullf, has sued Google concerning autocomplete results that link her name to terms such as “prostitute” and “escort services”.
Given the Australian connection, I had been waiting for news of further developments in Dr Hingston’s litigation against Google. However, Radio National reported last week that Dr Hingston had withdrawn his case against Google. Venkat Balasubramani kindly provided me with an extract of a search of the court’s records which confirmed that Dr Hingston’s case was voluntarily dismissed on 7 March 2013. This means that Dr Hingston can refile later if he chooses.
I am not aware of any cases specifically concerning autocomplete suggestions in Australia. However, last year in Trkulja v Google Inc (No 5)  VSC 533 the plaintiff, a Melbourne man, was successful in his defamation claim against Google in which he complained that its search results, both web results and images, linked him to gangland crime.
Should Google police autocomplete results?
Note: the Gazette of Law & Journalism first published a version of my post last week. This post is published with their permission.