A businessman has failed in court in his claim that Google’s “autocomplete” function of the company’s search engine should not display the word “bankrupt” along with its name. Such a link is permissible in individual cases, the Higher Regional Court (OLG) Frankfurt am Main decided, and thus differently from the lower court.
The result of the autocomplete function is “recognisably indefinite and does not contain any independent assertion”. The user knows that it is generated automatically. The OLG explained its decision that the combination only gained concrete significance after further research.
The owner of a group of companies that set up hotels had sued. Two companies in this group became insolvent ten years ago in connection with investigations by the tax authorities and have since been deleted from the commercial register. The plaintiff objected to the fact that the word “bankrupt” appeared in Google’s search mask as soon as his first and last name was entered. He also wanted to ensure that a website that refers to the insolvency is no longer displayed and linked.
The interests of the plaintiff must take a back seat
The Higher Regional Court explained that the plaintiff could not invoke the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) with his claim. Although the autocomplete function is an automatic processing of personal data, the plaintiff’s interests in respect for private and family life, the protection of personal data and entrepreneurial freedom must take a back seat. The interests of a broad public in access to information and Google’s right to entrepreneurial freedom and freedom of expression weigh more heavily for the Higher Regional Court.
In doing so, the Higher Regional Court considered that the meaning of the search suggestion “bankrupt” remained open and was indefinite. A reasonable Internet user is aware that the search suggestion is the result of an automatic process. The user initially “cannot do anything” with the displayed combination, it has no independent meaning and is no reason for further research.
Autocomplete before the BGH
Even if the user were to create a connection between the plaintiff and the term “bankrupt”, it would still be unclear how this connection should look in terms of content, the Higher Regional Court explained further. It must also be taken into account that there are actual connecting facts for the connection between the plaintiff’s name and the term “bankrupt”. The term is also not to be interpreted solely in the sense of Section 283 of the Criminal Code, which makes bankruptcy a punishable offense under certain circumstances; it is rather used in general usage.
The decision is not final, it is possible that the plaintiff will still turn to the Federal Court of Justice (BGH). Almost exactly ten years ago, he decided that Google must intervene in its search suggestions if they violate personal rights. At that time it was about a plaintiff who saw his rights violated by the automatic completion of his name with the terms “Scientology” and “fraud”. Bettina Wulff, wife of the former Federal President, had also sued Google. She saw her name in Google’s search mask linked to terms she didn’t like and reached an out-of-court agreement with the search engine provider in 2015.