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Defamation Landscape ‘Transformed By Online World’

Former German President’s Wife Reportedly Taking Action Against Google


Reports that the wife of a former German president is planning to take legal action against Google in relation to rumours about her past demonstrates how the internet has transformed the issue of defamation, according to a legal specialist at Irwin Mitchell.

Christian Wulff’s wife Bettina is believed to be commencing action after it was revealed that the search engine’s auto-complete function suggests terms such as ‘prostitute’ and escort’ when her name is typed in.

German press have revealed that Mrs Wulff has spent around two years fighting allegations related to her past and has even given a sworn declaration over rumours she was allegedly involved in prostitution before her marriage.

Responding to the claims, a spokesperson for Google’s German operations said the terms which feature in the auto-complete system are generated by algorithms and do consider the popularity of specific searches.

Rebekah Finch, a solicitor and expert in defamation cases at Irwin Mitchell’s Birmingham office, said the reports demonstrate the huge impact that the internet has had on the spread of defamatory comments, as well as the difficulties of preventing the spread of rumours once they reach the web.

She outlined: “This highlights the need for claimants to act very quickly in relation to defamatory comments, especially when they are posted online. Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs have led to a surge in the number of defamation cases relating to content published online with the medium meaning statements can be spread very quickly.

“Once defamatory comments are widespread, they can be much harder to control. As Wulff’s case demonstrates, the spread of such rumours can go on to impact on the search results or suggested phrases that engines such as Google can generate.

“Such problems emphasise how acting quickly is vital to not only limit the impact of the comments but also ensure they bring action within the required timeframe. It is often forgotten that claimants only have a year in which to bring action against a publisher.

Rebekah added: “If there are comments online which are untrue and damaging to the reputation of an individual or business, there a number of things that can and should be done.  Seeking legal advice is an important first step, which will ensure that those involved are aware of all of their options.”