Doctor sues Google over ‘bankrupt’ auto-complete search suggestion


Beyond serving as a helpful tool, Google's auto-complete search suggestions can often lead to a good laugh. Just type in something like "Where is," or "Should I" and see for yourself ("Where is Chuck Norris" and "Should I buy RIM Stock" are two of my favourite knee-slappers).

But for the brass at Google, auto-complete hasn't exactly been something to laugh about.

Dr. Guy Hingston, a surgeon based in Australia, has filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming defamation on the grounds that an auto-complete suggestion has hindered his business. This is the latest in a string of auto-complete related lawsuits that have increasingly found Google responsible for the content on its search pages.

As Hingston has observed, if you type "Guy Hin ..." into Google, the auto-complete search suggests the term "Guy Hingston bankrupt," the Sydney Morning Herald reports. Yet since he is not bankrupt, Hingston and his lawyers are seeking at least $75,000 in damages — plus court costs — claiming that he's "lost a number of patients and financiers [who] are refusing to deal with [Hingston] as a consequence of the reference on Google which is associated with his name."

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This seems to be a pretty cut and dry case, but this is where things get a little tricky.

As Google notes on its support page, "the search queries that you see as part of auto-complete are a reflection of the search activity of all web users and the content of web pages indexed by Google."

Now, I understand that Google must take ownership for the content on its pages, but it's the activity of the users that has created this particular auto-complete search term. Google's algorithm must have detected enough of this search term, as well as a sufficient amount of related content, in order to warrant "Guy Hingston bankrupt" as a popular search.

But if Guy Hingston is not bankrupt, why has Google's sophisticated algorithm detected a wealth of content to support the claim that he is? This is where things get even trickier.

Just a few years ago, Hingston used to enjoy a second vocation as the owner of CoastJet, an aviation group that closed its doors and went into administration back in 2009, the Port Macquarie News reports. CoastJet had a $2.8 million deposit on two new jets with Eclipse Aviation Corporation, but when the latter filed for bankruptcy, Hingston was forced to pack it in.

"We had two jets we were about to take delivery of, but with the manufacturer going bankrupt, we’ve lost everything," Hingston shared with Port Macquarie.

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Overwhelmed with debt, CoastJet was quickly bought out by an Asian billionaire, but that couldn't prevent Hingston from declaring bankruptcy on August 4, 2009. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Hingston's lawyers have stated that the bankruptcy has since been annulled, but at this point Google had found enough online content that coupled Hingston's name with the word "bankruptcy."

If history is any indication, the self-proclaimed "cancer surgeon, author & speaker" is almost a lock to win his case, but Hingston's claim of not being bankrupt isn't exactly squeaky clean.

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