A Melbourne man has been awarded damages of $200,000 after the Victorian Supreme Court found Google published defamatory material linking him to gangland figures in a decision with wider implications for the publication of material by internet search engines.
Milorad “Michael” Trkulja’s photo was published alongside that of gangland figures including Tony Mokbel in a story about an unresolved restaurant shooting.
A six person jury found earlier that putting Trkulja’s name into Google brought up stories about the shooting which occurred in 2004, and led to damage to his reputation and being ostracised from the community.
Google had asked for damages to be capped at $75,000, while Trkulja sought the maximum damages available in Victoria of $349,000.
The award follows an earlier case brought by Trkulja against Yahoo! where he was awarded $225,000.
Google’s lawyers had argued in court the search engine was not the publisher of the material and was only indexing the link to the website and the images in its results.
Google relied on the defence of “innocent dissemination” and argued that as a search engine it was not liable when somebody highlights defamatory material and asks for its removal.
However, the court held that Google was liable as the publisher of the defamatory material.
Trkulja’s barrister, Christopher Dibb, told SmartCompany it was the first time search engines had been held responsible for defamation in the same way as traditional media.
“It is the first time anywhere a search engine has been found liable for publication,” he says.
Dibb says the case differs from the earlier Yahoo! case as Yahoo! admitted it was the publisher of the information whereas Google denied it was a publisher.
“Newspapers have always been responsible for what people say on their pages and it is the same if somebody says something completely unscripted on live television or radio,” says Dibb.
“It puts internet search engines in the same position, subject to them being put on notice.”
Dibb says search engines such as Google will have to respond more quickly once they are alerted to defamatory material.
“I think they probably will, I think they will have to give the same consideration to claims of defamation as newspapers previously have,” he says.
“Search engines are the main way this is distributed now, everyone gets to information by typing in your name, as we say ‘googling you’, and what comes up on one of those searches effectively is your reputation in the modern world and it really matters that you can do something about it.”
SmartCompany understands that Google is considering appealing the decision and is also investigating how it responds to requests for material to be removed.
A spokesperson for Google told SmartCompany the search engine continued to dispute that it is a publisher.
“Google’s search results are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the web,” the spokesperson said.
“The sites in Google’s search results are controlled by those sites’ web masters, not by Google.”