Are the defamation floodgates against Internet search engines about to burst open?


An Aussie individual has recently been successful in the latest battle in a long running war against monolith, Google. The High Court has allowed an action for defamation to continue against Google, despite Google fighting to keep this out of the courts.

What is the case about?

In 2004, an individual (Plaintiff) was shot in a Melbourne restaurant during an infamous period (Melbourne’s gangland war). Although this incident was unrelated to Melbourne’s criminal underworld, Google search results for the Plaintiff’s name began returning images of him along with underworld figures such as Carl Williams, ‘Chopper Reid’, Mario Condello and Jason Moran. Google’s autocomplete function also began suggesting words such as ‘criminal’, ‘underworld’ and ‘Melbourne criminal underworld’ after his name.

Although Google granted the Plaintiff’s request to alter the autocomplete results, they refused to alter the image search results. The Plaintiff then commenced an action for defamation against the multinational technology giant.

This case has been running for many years, and the latest stoush was heard by the High Court last month.

What happened in the High Court in June?

The High Court found that Google’s search results were capable of being held as defamatory. The Court concluded that the relevant test for whether published material is capable of being defamatory is measured against what an ordinary reasonable person would understand of the complained material and whether that would caused them to think less of that person. The Court agreed with the trial judge that Google was a likely a ‘publisher’ of the alleged defamatory material despite the use of computer algorithms.

The High Court has now sent the matter back to the Victorian Supreme Court for a final hearing.

How is this case relevant for your business?

Internet search engine results that put an individual or business in a false context and result in incorrect connections being made may lead to a claim of defamation against the relevant search engine provider.

There could be legal ramifications for businesses that use search engine optimisation tools to increase their online presence.

The eagerly awaited final hearing before Victorian Supreme Court may prove crucial to the future law in relation defamation and Internet search engines.

Watch this space.