A French court has found Google and its chief executive Eric Schmidt liable in defamation over autocomplete “Google Suggest” results.  The claimant had been convicted and given a 3 year suspended sentence for corruption of a minor.  He then discovered that if his name was entered into a Google search, the website “suggested” his name linked to “rapist”, “Satanist”, “prison” and a number of similar words.  He argued that the combination of these words was defamatory, regardless of the content of articles or documents which such searches produced.

Google denied liability on the familiar ground that the suggestion were the result of an automated system from a database of the labels most commonly used research by the Internet.  It argued that the defamatory allegation were not the result of conscious thought but of the application of algorithms.   It said that the order of requests is entirely determined by the number of users who have used each of the queries, the most frequently appearing on the list.

A similar argument by Google was successful in the English case of Metropolitan Schools v Designtechnica [2009] EWHC 1765 (QB)) but it did not find favour in the 17th Chamber of the Tribunal de Grand Instance in Paris.    That Court noted that Google had admitted that it was able to intervene to influence results which were produced by “Google Suggest” and did so, particularly in relation to pornography and hate speech.

The Court rejected the argument that Google’s freedom of expression was in issue, pointing out that the only purpose of “Google Suggest” was to prevent Internet users from having to enter their computer the whole text of their application.  The Court had no doubt that the “suggestions” were defamatory and found Google Inc liable.  It was ordered to block the suggested search terms and pay damages as well as costs.  It has been reported that Google intends to appeal.

The judgment is available in French on the Legalis.net website – which also has a discussion of the case here. There are news stories about it from Bloomberg and Associated Press which picked up a story in the French daily Le Monde.