Laws Of .com

Australian Court Finds Google to Be "Publisher"; Liable for Defamatory Search Results

In a decision released November 12, 2012, the Supreme Court of Victoria in Australia has found Google Inc. liable for $200,000 in a defamation suit. The plaintiff found that when his name was entered into a Google search, the results page showed his picture associated with the pictures of criminals and references to the Melbourne criminal underworld.

In response, Google alleged that it was not the publisher of the material, as there was no human involvement in selecting what information appeared in the search result. However, the court held that, because Google employees developed and implemented the search engine algorithms, and those algorithms were used to create the resulting search results page, Google was the “publisher” of that page.

Google could have availed itself of the “innocent publisher” defence, where the publication was not intentional and merely published the work of someone else. However, the court held that this defence only applies where the publisher is not aware that the material included is defamatory. In this case, the plaintiff wrote to Google in 2009, making Google aware of the problem. When they refused to change the search results, they lost their right to the use the innocent publisher defence.

As a result, it now appears to be the law in Australia that Google can be found liable for defamatory content appearing in its search results, once it is notified that the material is defamatory. If the decision is not overturned, this could mark a significant increase in the level of liability for the search engine company in Australia, and any other jurisdiction which seeks to follow the court’s decision.

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