Google ordered to pay Australian politician $515,000, after it allegedly profited from abusive and defamatory YouTube videos
An Australian court order has brought the issue of how much responsibility tech platforms have for the content they host, right into the public eye.
Reuters reported that on Monday an Australian court on Monday ordered Google to pay a former lawmaker A$715,000 ($515,000). It stated that its refusal to remove a YouTuber’s “relentless, racist, vilificatory, abusive and defamatory” videos drove him out of politics.
The Federal Court found the Alphabet company intentionally made money by hosting two videos on its YouTube website attacking the then-deputy premier of New South Wales, John Barilaro.
John Barilaro served as deputy premier of New South Wales (Australia’s most populous state) from between 2011 to December 2021.
Barilaro is known figure in Australian politics and in 2017 he publicly called for the resignation of former Aussie PM Malcolm Turnbull as a ‘Christmas gift’ to the nation.
But in the second half of 2020 YouTube comedian and political commentator Jordan Shanks, known online as friendlyjordies, published a series of videos criticising Barilaro for the 2019–20 bushfire season and accusing him of corruption, without providing credible evidence.
According to Reuters the videos have been viewed nearly 800,000 times since being posted in 2020.
The court judgement reportedly showed that Google had denied the videos carried defamatory imputations.
And Google said the YouTuber had the right to an honestly held opinion and should be protected by the right to criticise a politician.
A Google spokesperson was not available for comment.
“They (Google) were advised that those defamatory videos were there, they looked into it, they decided for themselves that they weren’t, and left them up,” Prof David Rolph, a specialist in media law at the University of Sydney Law School, told Reuters.
“That’s an orthodox application of the basic principles of publication in defamation law (but) leaves the larger question about whether we need to reform the principles of publication,” he said.
The court heard that Jordan Shanks uploaded videos in which he repeatedly brands lawmaker John Barilaro “corrupt”, and calls him names attacking his Italian heritage which the judge, Steve Rares, said amounted to “nothing less than hate speech.”
By continuing to publish the content, Judge Rares said Google breached its own policies aimed at protecting public figures from being unfairly targeted, and “drove Mr Barilaro prematurely from his chosen service in public life and traumatised him significantly.”
Barilaro quit politics a year after Shanks posted the videos, and “Google cannot escape its liability for the substantial damage that Mr Shanks’ campaign caused,” Rares reportedly said.
Jordan Shanks, who has 626,000 YouTube subscribers was a co-defendant until a settlement with Barilaro last year which involved the YouTuber editing the videos and paying the former politician A$100,000 ($72,225).
But Shanks “needed YouTube to disseminate his poison (and) Google was willing to join Mr Shanks in doing so to earn revenue as part of its business model,” the judge said.
Reuters reported that before the lawsuit was resolved, Shanks continued to make disparaging comments about Barilaro and his lawyers in YouTube videos, and the judge said he would refer him and Google to the authorities “for what appear to be serious contempts of court by bringing improper pressure … not to pursue this proceeding.”
In a Facebook post, Shanks (aka friendlyjordies) again lashed out at Barilaro.
“Well done John. You finally scored the coin from Google,” he wrote. “Class act. And you managed to get it without ever having the truth tested in court. You claimed parliamentary privilege to prevent evidence being run against you. You withdrew your action against us so we wouldn’t testify or present our evidence. Poor old google left to carry the can. I guess they are rich enough to not care.”
“We now know that around the same time your lawyers were drafting your concerns notice, you went to the Terror Police and a Strike Force with full surveillance powers was set up against us, the very people you intended to sue,” he added. “Is it just us or does something about that smell?”
Barilaro was quoted by Reuters as telling reporters outside the courthouse that he felt “cleared and vindicated.”
“It was never about money,” he said. “It was about an apology, removal. Of course, now an apology is worthless after the campaign has continued. It’s taken a court to force Google’s hand.”
It is not clear at the time of writing, if Google intends to appeal the court ruling.
The ruling does highlight the question of whose is liable for user content hosted on tech platforms.
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.
For a while now there has been debate in the US about how much culpability technology firms have for defamation made by users on their websites.
Australia is one of few Western nations where online platforms have the same legal responsibility as newspaper publishers, which triggered a big stand-off with Facebook and others.
In September last year, 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