Hong Kong Court Says Film Mogul Can Sue Google for Defamation

Albert Yeung Headshot - P 2014
AP Images

Albert Yeung Headshot - P 2014

Searches for Emperor Group chief Albert Yeung’s name yield references to triad organized crime gangs in autocomplete.

A court in Hong Kong has ruled that tycoon Albert Yeung, head of the conglomerate that owns Emperor Motion Pictures, can sue Google for defamation because an autocomplete in searches for his name suggests adding the word "triad," the territory’s notorious organized crime gangs.

When searching in English for Albert Yeung Sau-shing, the founder and chairman of Emperor Group, which owns property and jewelry firms as well as the film company, the searches automatically suggest "triad" as the second option.

In Chinese, the autocomplete function also offers "Sun Yee On" and "14K," which are the names of prominent triad gangs.

Yeung wants Google to be made to remove the “defamatory” suggestions and to pay him compensation.

EMP is one of Hong Kong’s three biggest film companies, and it recently opened the first of a chain of multiplex cinemas. Among its recent hits is Dante Lam’s The Demon Within, and it is also backing Jiang Wen’s Gone With the Bullets, the follow-up to the hugely successful Let the Bullets Fly.

Hong Kong’s High Court has dismissed the search giant's argument that it did not bear responsibility for suggestions in the autocomplete function related to Yeung and that the court did not have personal jurisdiction over the U.S. search giant, the South China Morning Post newspaper reported.

“There is a good arguable case that Google Inc is the publisher of the Words and liable for their publication,” said Marlene Ng, the deputy high court judge, in her ruling.

“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 in between,” Ng said.

Google argued that autocomplete works according to an automated algorithm and the company is not responsible for the resulting suggestions, which change depending on what a critical mass of users search for.

Google’s lawyer Gerard McCoy warned that “the entire basis of the Internet will be compromised” if search engines were required to “audit” what could be accessed by Internet users.

This is a regular problem for Google. In May, the European Union’s highest court, the European Court of Justice, ruled that people have a right to request that years-old personal information that is no longer relevant be removed from Internet search results, the so-called right to be forgotten.

Yeung is one of Hong Kong's richest businesspeople and a larger- than-life figure behind top stars, including Nicholas Tse, Gillian Chung and Charlene Choi, but he makes rare forays into the public arena.

In 1981, he spent nine months in prison after he was found guilty of obstructing justice in a personal injury case, and he survived a kidnapping attempt in 1989. In 1994, he was picked up by the Organized Crime and Triad Bureau (OCTB) but was acquitted.