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Google liable for auto-complete

In a landmark decision by Germany’s Federal Supreme Court, the Bundesgerichtshof (BGH), the search engine Google has been held liable for legal infringements caused by its auto-complete function.

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Personality rights

A German businessman brought the claim after he felt that Google’s auto-complete breached his personality rights under articles 1 and 2 of the German constitution. The basis of his case was that when his name was entered in Google the auto-complete suggested additional words including Scientology and fraud.

The businessman had complained to Google about the search results, but the technology giant did nothing. Both Cologne’s district and regional appeal courts had rejected the businessman’s arguments that the search results breached his personality rights and refused to grant him damages or an injunction.

The BGH overturned the decisions, remarking that search-engine operators will not be required to monitor search results in advance; they will only be under a duty to investigate alleged personality right infringements when they receive complaints.

Consequences for search engine operators

Nevertheless, this decision has far-reaching consequences for search-engine operators. The BGH noted that where such operators receive notice of personality right infringements, they are under a duty to prevent those infringements occurring in the future.