Google defamation case could open floodgates
If you’ve ever searched your own name on the internet and been shocked to find it popping up in less than salubrious company, you can understand why Milorad Trkulja sued Google.
Not only had the former Melbourne music promoter been shot by an unknown gunman in 2004 while dining at a restaurant, but he then found his name and image linked by internet searches to the Melbourne underworld. Police stress Mr Trkulja has no criminal associations and was an innocent bystander.
In 2009 Mr Trkulja asked Google and other search engines to remove the content and searches linking his name to Melbourne criminals. Google was linking images of Mr Trkulja alongside well known underworld figure Tony Mokbel in its search results. Mr Trkulja said people were avoiding him even though he was an innocent victim of a gangland shooting.
But Google failed to remove the links and Mr Trjkulja sued Google seeking $339,000 in damages. He argued having his name linked to underworld figures created a “false innuendo” suggesting he had been involved in crime and that his rivals had hired a hitman to murder him.
In a landmark decision, a six person jury in the Victorian Supreme Court has ruled against Google. It’s important to note Google lost the case because they failed to respond to Mr Trkulja’s complaint. But it means search engines such as Google can’t ignore future takedown notices.
It’s a landmark case that could have a big impact for the internet. Courts in Britain have ruled search engines are not publishers, but purely mechanical devices and therefore not responsible for the material it links via searches.
In the Melbourne case Google’s lawyers used the same argument, saying Google was merely providing links to content without knowing the material was defamatory.
Mr Trkulja won a similar case against Yahoo! in March and was awarded $225,000 in damages. Google makes $24 billion profit, so any payout to Mr Trkulja won’t hurt them financially, and Google may appeal.
But the case could open the floodgates to many others who feel aggrieved about the treatment of their good name on the internet or social media.
The case shows that as soon as an Internet search engine knows about a defamation complaint it can be held liable for what it publishes in its search results.
If you or anyone you know is aggrieved by what appears about them on the internet or social media, it would be wise to seek legal advice. Not only is it possible to sue the owners of websites or authors of Facebook or Twitter comments, but now the search engines that distribute the comments far and wide.
[Editor’s note: for an update on this case, please see our August 2020 article Australian man suing Google for defamation over search results linking him to criminals.
For an overview of online defamation, please see Social media defamation: be cautious when posting or re-posting online comments, reviews and links.]