Defamatory Autocomplete (Information Cascades)

A court in Germany just ruled that Google must remove autocomplete suggestions is they are defamatory. Now at first blush this seems quite silly and Google has taken the position that they are simply reflecting what people are searching for. I don’t think it is quite that simple though.

This is clearly an example of where information cascades are possible and problematic. I have written about the issue of information cascades before, but this makes another great example. Imagine someone starting a rumor that you had previously worked as an escort (as happened with former German first lady Bettina Wolf). Now lots of people start searching for “Bettina Wolf escort” and soon enough the autocomplete for “Bettina Wolf” becomes “escort” thus cementing the initial rumor.

Information cascades like this are a problem not just because they might come about accidentally but also because they can be exploited explicitly for instance to smear a candidate for office (I am sure one could even use a bot net to get one of these going). A court ordered one-off removal system is unlikely to be the answer. Google and others (eg Twitter, Reddit) who are potential amplifiers of cascades, however, should be putting some of their brightest minds to work on how to detect these and potentially slow them down or remove them altogether instead of just claiming there is not a problem here.

Posted: 15th May 2013Comments
Tags:  information cascade society

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