Former German First Lady Sues Google: Autocomplete Suggests “Prostitute” When You Search Her Name

Former German first lady Bettina Wulff

Former German first lady Bettina Wulff

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

BERLIN—For two years now, Germany’s former “first lady” Bettina Wulff has attempted to quell rumors about her supposed “red light past”—gossip (apparently originating with  political rivals of her husband, former president Christian Wulff) suggests she once worked as an escort.

Her lawyers have issued 34 successful “cease-and-decease” orders against publications spreading the rumor, and she further denied the allegations in her new best-selling book, Beyond the Protocol. German media outlets have focused on the sections in which Wulff addresses the salacious rumors, with several stories headlined, “I have never worked as an escort lady.”

Given all this discussion, it seems logical that Google’s Autocomplete picked up on the hype—well, automatically. When you type in her name, the German words for “escort”, “prostitute,” or “past life” appear. It’s not clear when the offending suggestions first cropped up, but on Sept. 7, her lawyers informed Google that they would be filing a lawsuit in a Hamburg court.

There have been five similar Autocomplete legal cases against Google in Germany—most involving “bankruptcy” or “fraud” following a person’s name. Google won them all, according to Kay Oberbeck, a spokesman for Google Northern Europe. Those suits failed, he says, because the searches were algorithmically generated results—a reflection of the search activity of all Web users—that led to legal content. That logic could also apply to Wulff’s case. “Google does not suggest these terms. All of the queries shown in Autocomplete have been typed previously by other Google users,” Oberbeck told me.

Wulff herself has played a role in propagating these phrases through trying to deny them. She is a classic example of the Streisand effect: when an attempt to hide or discredit information actually makes it even more widely known. In fact, 81 percent of Germans had never heard these rumors—which have apparently existed since 2006—until Wulff started her campaign to stymie them, according to a poll conducted for the newspaper Bild am Sonntag.

While German media usually shy away from prying into politicians’ personal lives, Wulff is an exception. Her husband, Christian Wulff, resigned as president in February amid rumors that he had accepted personal favors from wealthy friends.  But while he has since avoided the media spotlight, Wulff has revelled in it.

Most Germans, notoriously sensitive about online privacy issues, feel that Google has overstepped its bounds. Spiegel Online, a forefront German online news magazine, stated that Google is displaying a double standard by allowing some terms to appear in Autocomplete, and not others—such as those that link users to pirated movies.

“Why, for instance, should the interests of the film industry which wants to avoid suggesting that anyone look for pirated copies of their works, outweigh the personal rights of Ms. Wulff?” asked one opinion piece.

In Germany, Oberbeck says, it is Google policy not to feature terms in Autocomplete that display hate or pornographic speech, or would lead to copyright infringement.* For example, when you type the name of your favorite movie into the function, Google will not place the term “bittorrent” next to it, since it could lead to a slew of illegal downloading sites. Most of this mirrors Google’s policies in the United States (where just last week, Google removed bisexual from its list of words banned from Autocomplete), but there are country-by-country legal specifications. For example, like many countries in Europe, Germany has a ban on Holocaust denial. But a search term alluding to this could still appear in Autocomplete in the U.S., where such speech is protected under the First Amendment.

Wulff’s objection to a rumor—even if it’s not true—doesn’t fall into those categories. So Google will, no doubt, take a strong stand against this case. Censoring algorithmically-generated suggestions would rid the feature of what’s it trying to do: point out trends in Web searches.

When you Google Wulff in Germany today, the other two words that appear—in English—are height and tattoo, traits that the media spotlighted in almost every article on the woman dubbed “Germany’s first glamazon.” But whether or not she succeeds in her suit against Google, her book sales are probably increasing.

Correction, Sept. 20, 2012: This blog post originally and incorrectly stated that it is illegal in Germany for Google to include certain terms in Autocomplete. It is instead Google policy not to use them.