An Australian cancer surgeon has sued Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) for defamation, claiming the search engine’s autocomplete cost him clients. According to the lawsuit, when a Google user types “Guy Hin…” into a search, the words “Guy Hingston Bankrupt” appear. Although the associated links have nothing to do with Hingston’s medical practice, the surgeon alleges Google’s automatic search results are defamatory and “highly offensive to a reasonable person.” He claims he contacted Google multiple times to correct the issue with no results.
“Dr. Hingston is a surgeon practicing in Port Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia,” the complaint states. “Dr. Hingston’s surgical practice focuses on breast cancer. Given his professional practice and position in his community, maintaining his good reputation is critical. Dr. Hingston has lost a number of patients and financiers who are refusing to associate and/or deal with Dr. Hingston as a consequence of the reference on Google to a bankruptcy.”
The fact is, however, that the search results were accurate. Although Guy Hingston’s medical practice is successful and in no danger of bankruptcy, he did, in fact, purchase an aviation business that went bust. The search results related to the Google autocomplete point to a bankruptcy filing by Eclipse Aviation—a business Hingston purchased 2 ½ years ago. Therefore Hingston’s claims that the Google results are defamatory and have nothing to do with him are completely false. He may not like seeing his name associated with a bankruptcy, but the fact of the matter is… he was.
While it may be true that a potential patient could be discouraged to see Hingston associated with bankruptcy, if the searcher takes an extra second or two to read the search results, any conclusion that his medical practice was in dire financial straits would easily be eliminated. Every other link in the search results for Hingston indicates he operates a highly successful medical practice and has published related books. Hingston is rashly underestimating the intelligence and diligence of his clientele in his assertions that they cannot see past Google’s autocomplete box.
Ironically, since Hingston filed the lawsuit in federal court, more search results appear under “Guy Hingston Bankruptcy” than before, for obvious reasons. As most Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) searchers know, the company doesn’t seek to “defame” anyone. Instead, its suggestions reflect the popularity of sites and terms on the Web. Still, Hingston is seeking at least $75,000 in damages for false light, as well as court costs.
Hingston isn’t the first individual to sue Google over its autocomplete feature. In September, Bettina Wulf, wife of former German president Christian Wulff, sued Google because its autocorrect feature allegedly completed a search for her name with the phrases “Bettina Wulff prostitute” and “Bettina Wulff escort.” Google lost a similar suit in Japan when the autocomplete feature linked a man’s name with various crimes with which he had no involvement. The Japanese court ordered Google to delete the terms from its autocomplete.
Hingston may have a tougher hill to climb, however, since the autocomplete phrase in his complaint is linked to a factual bankruptcy. Should he win, it could open the door to countless frivolous lawsuits against Google and other search companies filed by anyone unhappy with their dirty laundry showing up in search.