A popular Irish hotel has sued Google for defamation because Google’s autocomplete feature suggests to searchers that the hotel is in receivership.
Searchers looking for the Ballymascanlon Hotel — a four-star property that’s reportedly one of the most popular wedding venues in northeast Ireland and is not in financial trouble — see “ballymascanlon hotel receivership” as an autocomplete suggestion as soon as they’ve typed only eight letters of the hotel name. According to a recent Sunday Times article (quoted here by TJ McIntyre), some brides have contacted the hotel “in tears” after seeing the autocomplete suggestion, no doubt fearing that their wedding plans would have to be scrapped.
As Mark Collier writes, the hotel isn’t seeking punitive damages from Google; the suit only asks for an injunction to stop Google from showing the autocomplete suggestion about receivership, and for Google to pay the hotel’s legal fees.
Collier also details how the hotel made multiple attempts to contact Google about the issue and resolve it away from court – beginning with online channels and eventually escalating to attorney’s letters and even including the autocomplete problem in a DMCA complaint filed in March.
Previous Autocomplete Cases
Google has already faced similar complaints in other countries, and hasn’t fared well in the courts. The company lost two cases last year in France; see our articles Google Loses French Lawsuit Over Google Suggest and Google Convicted Again In France Over Google Suggest.
How Autocomplete Works
Google has explained many time that autocomplete suggestions come from actual search activity. In Danny Sullivan’s article, How Google Instant’s Autocomplete Suggestions Work, the company commented on the Italian case I mentioned above:
We believe that Google should not be held liable for terms that appear in Autocomplete as these are predicted by computer algorithms based on searches from previous users, not by Google itself.
But Google’s argument that autocomplete suggestions are algorithmic doesn’t seem to stand up to legal scrutiny, perhaps because the company has manually removed piracy-related terms in the past, and its help pages list other cases — pornography, violence, hate speech, etc. — where suggestions will be removed.
I’m certainly not a lawyer, nor do I play one on Search Engine Land. So, whether that happens again in Ireland is anyone’s guess at this point.
(Thanks to Mark Collier for tipping us to this story. If you have news tips to share, please contact us.)