Search engines may have to tread carefully.
Google has been hit with a fine of $200,000 for failing to remove defamatory rumors linking music promoter, Milorad Trkulja, to organized crime in Melbourne. The court stated that Google was a publisher of this information and reasoned that despite being a fully automated system, the programs utilised were written by people and therefore acted as Google and those employees wished. Trkulja initially raised concerns in 2009 and demanded that Google remove the rumours and images. Google declined and stated that he should contact the website owners.
The court reasoned that Google was responsible stating:
“The plaintiff accepted (correctly in my view) that he had to establish that Google Inc intended to publish the material complained of. While much was made by counsel for Google Inc of the fact that there was no human intervention between the request made to the search engine and the publication of search results, and of the fact that the system was “fully automated”, the plaintiff’s point was that Google Inc intended to publish everything Google’s automated systems (which systems its employees created and allowed to operate) produced. Specifically, the plaintiff contended that Google Inc intended to publish the material complained of because while the systems were automated, those systems were the consequence of computer programs, written by human beings, which programs were doing exactly what Google Inc and its employees intended and required. On this basis, it was contended that each time the material complained of was downloaded and comprehended, there was a publication by Google Inc (the operator and owner of the relevant search engines), as intended by it.”
Google responded that its search results are simply a reflection of the information that is available on the web. It added, “The sites in Google’s search results are controlled by those sites’ webmasters, not by Google.” This ruling may mean that Google will have to act quicker when defamatory content is highlighted, or at least in Australia. Google has previously been protected by rulings as in the case of Tamiz in England, where Mr Justice Eady determined that Google should not be regarded as a publisher. Tamiz took the case against Google as there were eight comments in a particular blog, which he felt were defamatory. However Mr Justice Eady concluded that the court should decline jurisdiction in these proceedings.
The latest ruling could have quite a significant fallout if consulted in other defamation cases considering some of the comments, opinions and rumours published on the internet. If Google is classified as a publisher, it will have to act quickly to remove links to defamatory content or it will be in danger of being targeted by a slew of cases.