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The wife of former German President Christian Wulff is fighting rumors about her past. The hub of these rumors is Google, where searches with her name have been combined with unsavory terms.
Former First Lady Bettina Wulff is fighting back against dubious allegations about her past.
This September Wulff's lawyer, Gernot Lehr, filed a complaint in Hamburg against search engine giant Google for what he calls its failure to remove false statements. Lehr's goal is ensuring the search engine's autocomplete function does not combine Wulff's name with salacious keywords directing the user to unfounded claims.
When typing "Bettina Wulff" in Google's search bar, among the first words to show up after her name are "prostitute" and "escort." For 38-year Wulff, it's a highly distressing connection. But is the fight against the US company one she can win?
Christian Solmecke, a Cologne lawyer specializing in media law, told DW, "The issue is where content can be placed by Google." German courts haven't dealt much with this, he said, adding, "It's therefore questionable whether Google can be held liable."
Hype fed by rumor
The rumors about Wulff are certainly salacious: For years, Internet portals and blogs have claimed that she used to be a prostitute.
"The rumors came in 2006 from the CDU [the Christian Democratic Union, Wulff's own party], they came from Wulff's opponents," said Hans Leyendecker, an investigative journalist at the German daily, Süddeutsche Zeitung. "They were then repeated so often that even those who spread them started believing they were true."
A few years ago, only political insiders knew of the rumors. But when a loan scandal surrounding former German President Christian Wulff became public near the end of 2011, it became a powerful accelerant in a media firestorm.
"[Christian] Wulff had many enemies," said Leyendecker. "In 2011, the story [about his wife] made the rounds in journalist circles, and they said to one another, 'Why don't you write about it?'"
But the story turned out to be false. Coverage of it in the first place, Leyendecker said, was the result of a media frenzy based on rumor rather than fact, a situation compounded by consumer demand for such articles.
Google at center of controversy
Today, it is still relatively easy to find online articles about Wulff's fictionalized past through a Google search. Although many bloggers have been warned, deleting entries and signing cease-and-desist letters at the request of Wulff's lawyer, the search tool - Google - remains problematic.
"The focal point for all this is Google," said Solmecke. He said if specific terms were removed from the Google autocomplete, that would be a step toward clearing Wulff's name.
Wulff is not the first high-profile European political figure to be the subject of online search engine rumor-mongering. In France, four human rights organizations have accused Google of "latent anti-Semitism" because when users entered the name of French President Francois Hollande in the search box, the suggested word "Jew" appeared.
And this past January, a French court fined Google and ordered it to change its autocomplete in the case of insurance company Lyonnaise de Garantie. When typing in the company's name, the French word for "crook" would appear.
But is there a chance Google will stop connecting Wulff's name with prostitution when searched?
"It is a very difficult question," said Solmecke, because this might be seen by a judge as limiting freedom of expression.
An unwinnable battle?
The case will be discussed in Bettina Wulff's upcoming memoir, due to be released this month, which will also contain an account of her experiences while her husband served as president.
Some are already claiming Wulff's case against Google amounts to nothing more than public relations for her book.
But Leyendecker said that may not be the case.
"She is in many ways the victim in this story," he said. "She said she's doing this for her children. Her son Leander may already have searched for her name on Google."
The question remains whether Wulff's lawsuit against Google will actually fulfill her goals. It could even lead to the "Barbra Streisand effect" - in which attempts to supress negative publicity can lead to broad resonance for the story in the media, strengthening the very associations Wulff would like to dispel.