A High Court judge's ruling that entertainment tycoon Albert Yeung Sau-shing can go ahead with his defamation lawsuit against Google is a decision that could have far-reaching consequences for the future of its search engine.
Yeung, founder of a company that manages some of Hong Kong's most famous celebrities, wants to sue the US technology giant because the "autocomplete" function of its search engine links him to triad gangs.
When users type "Albert Yeung Sau-shing" in English or Chinese into the search engine, Google automatically suggests related search terms such as "triad", "Sun Yee On" and "14K" - the names of triad gangs.
Yeung wants a court to order Google to remove the "defamatory" suggestions and to pay him compensation.
Google argues the suggestions are generated by a computer algorithm or process based on the most frequent combinations of terms that people search for.
But the High Court ruled Google "recombines and aggregates" data through its algorithm and therefore can be legally regarded as a "publisher", meaning it may be sued for defamation.
The decision is a major blow to Google, three months after it lost a landmark case in the European Court of Justice, when it was ordered to erase links to content about individuals on request under the "right to be forgotten".
In her judgment on Tuesday, Madam Justice Marlene Ng May-ling said a jury "may consider" a substantial award for Yeung given Google's search features.
"The advantages of having easy access to a rich store of information ... [come] at a price; any risk of misinformation can spread easily as users forage in the web. The art is to find the comfortable equilibrium," Ng said.
Google's lawyer, Gerard McCoy SC, warned that "the entire basis of the internet will be compromised" if search engines were required to "audit" what could be accessed.
He said Google used "an algorithmic-based approach that requires no human input, operation and/or manipulation in the search processes" and was "a mere passive facilitator".
The judge, however, was unimpressed, saying that Google's algorithms "are synthesising and reconstituting" inputted query data and web content before publishing them as suggestions.
Information thus provided was "distilled pursuant to artificial intelligence set up by Google Inc themselves", Ng said. "This raises a question as to whether or not Google Inc is a neutral tool, and whether [autocomplete search] results are merely [a] machine-generated and non-meaningful jumble of keywords."
Google would not comment on the judgment.
Francis Fong Po-kiu, chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Interactive Marketing, cast doubt on the usefulness of asking Google to remove the associations, as media materials could not be taken down.
"Even if the court was to eventually rule in favour of any individual, the ruling should bind the search engine only so far as that person is concerned," Fong said.
This is not the first time Google has been sued over its autocomplete function. Last year, a German court ordered it to remove offensive or defamatory search suggestions. In that case, the court said Google would only have to remove certain terms when it was notified of an unlawful violation of a person's rights.