Google Defamation Ruling Overturned By Australian High Court

The High Court of Australia has made a notable intervention in libel laws in that country, after overturning a court ruling against the search engine giant.

A federal court in Australia had previously found Google had engaged in defamation, after it supplied a hyperlink to an allegedly defamatory newspaper article.

But the High Court on Wednesday overturned that ruling, with the seven-judge panel voting 5-2 to throw out the earlier finding that the Alphabet unit had played a part in publishing the disputed article by acting as a “library” housing it.

The High Court instead ruled that the search engine had no active role in the matter, Reuters reported.

High Court ruling

The matter stems from a 2004 article which alleged that a criminal defence lawyer had crossed professional lines and become a “confidant” of criminals, according to the published judgement.

According to Reuters, the lawyer (George Defteros) found a link to the story in a 2016 Google search of his name and had Google remove it after it was viewed by 150 people, the judgement said.

George Defteros then sued in a state court, which ruled Google was a publisher and ordered it to pay him A$40,000 ($28,056).

Google however appealed the judgement, and now the High Court has ruled on the matter.

“The Underworld article was not written by any employee or agent of the appellant,” two of the panel judges wrote in Wednesday’s ruling.

The appellant is this case is Google.

“It was written by a reporter with no connection to the appellant, and published by an independent newspaper over which the appellant had no control or influence,” the judgement states.

Google “does not own or control the internet,” they added.

A Google spokesperson was not immediately available for comment, Reuters reported.

Defteros meanwhile said in a statement that the process had been “long, drawn out, expensive and extremely stressful,” but he felt vindicated because the court agreed the article was defamatory even though Google was not liable.

Libel laws

This case represents a notable intervention in Australia, where for years now questions have been raised about where exactly liability rests for online defamation.

The country is currently conducting a review of its libel law, and is still awaiting a final recommendation on whether tech platforms such as Google and or Facebook should be held accountable.

According to Reuters, last year the Australian High Court found a newspaper publisher liable for defamatory comments left beneath an article that it had posted on Facebook.

The difference between the 2021 Facebook case and Wednesday’s case was that the media companies last year “invited and encouraged comment”.

The High Court ruled that Google “did not provide a forum or place where it could be communicated, nor did it encourage the writing of comment in response”, the judges reportedly wrote.

YouTube case

It remains to be seen whether this ruling will have any impact on a recent case involving Alphabet’s YouTube in Australia.

In June, an Australian Federal Court ordered Google to pay a former lawmaker A$715,000 ($515,000).

The court ruled that unit’s refusal to remove a YouTuber’s (Jordan Shanks, known online as friendlyjordies), “relentless, racist, vilificatory, abusive and defamatory” videos drove him out of politics.

The Federal Court found the Alphabet division intentionally made money by hosting two videos on its YouTube website attacking the then-deputy premier of New South Wales – John Barilaro.

Google stated at the time that the YouTuber had the right to an honestly held opinion and should be protected by the right to criticise a politician.

Australian law

In the United States, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is crucial to free expression on the internet, as it offers tech companies protection from liability over content posted by users.

Australia however is one of few Western nations where online platforms have the same legal responsibility as newspaper publishers, which previously has triggered a big stand-off with Facebook and others.

In September 2020, the High Court in Australia made a controversial ruling, when it made local media companies and publishers liable for the comments found on their Facebook pages.

Following that ruling, CNN became the first major news organisation to pull its Facebook presence in Australia as a result

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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