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Can Google be sued for a mere search suggestion? A Hong Kong judge says yes.

The Google logo is reflected in an eye. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Google’s autocomplete feature has earned meme status for the hilarious and sometimes disturbing search terms it suggests.

For example, if you type “why are” into Google search right now, the number one suggested search is: “Why are manhole covers round?”

But autocomplete isn’t all fun and games. When Hong Kong business tycoon Albert Yeung Sau-shing Googled his name, the autocomplete feature suggested the word “triad,” a term that, in Asia, is associated with organized crime.

Now Yeung is suing Google for libel.

Yeung is the founder and chairman of Emperor Group, a sprawling business empire that includes property development, entertainment and financial services. He has been found guilty of crimes including illegal bookmaking and perverting the course of public justice, and has been fined for insider trading.

However, he has tried to rehabilitate his image through charity work. He is not one to tolerate even a minor blemish to his reputation — or his tablecloth for that matter: “If any sauce drops on the dining table, I would be very unhappy, as though my business had failed,” he once said, according to the South China Morning Post.

Google tried to have the case dismissed, but Tuesday a judge in Hong Kong said it could go to trial. The decision follows a trend in overseas courts sympathetic to those who want to hold Google responsible for what the Internet says about them. Deputy High Court Judge Marlene Ng cited Europe’s recent “right to be forgotten” ruling requiring Google to remove embarrassing or outdated search results upon request.

To prove libel in Hong Kong — and the United States — you have to show the accused published a defamatory statement about you. At issue in this case is whether Google can be regarded as the “publisher” of terms suggested by its search algorithm.

Autocomplete uses predictive search, which makes suggestions based on past Googling. For Yeung, “triad” appeared in autosearch because others were searching for his name and the word — or because those words appeared together in pages indexed by Google. Google, however, says it can’t “publish” libelous search results like a newspaper might publish a libelous article because it uses automated search algorithms without human input.

Autosearch in action.

Yeung doesn’t dispute the search process is automated. However, he argues Google has control over suggested search terms because it designed the search algorithm. Therefore, he says, Google is the “publisher” of search results.

The court acknowledges that “to influence or change what the autocomplete instant results show will require a large number of users with unique internet protocol (IP) addresses to type the desired search query into Google Search on an ongoing basis.”

Nonetheless, the judge ruled that Yeung has a “good arguable case” and cleared it to move forward.

Writing for Gigaom, Jeff John Roberts said the ruling is worrisome because it “may give prominent figures like Yeung a new tool to silence public opinion they disagree with. At the same time, the decision cites — and builds on — a worrying worldwide rush to censor Google.”

This isn’t the first time Google has been sued over its suggested search results. Last year, a German court ruled in favor of a nutritional supplement company who sued to remove suggested results linking it to Scientology and fraud. An Italian court in 2011 ordered Google to filter suggested searches that implied a plaintiff was a con man.