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A recent ruling by an Australian court finds that Google is guilty of defamation if its search results return links to sites with defamatory content. The court has decided that providing a hyperlink to the content as well as displaying a snippet of text from the linked source is enough for Google to be considered a  publisher of the content.

The case was brought against Google by Janice Duffy. The site Ripoff Report contains some content that Duffy believes to be defamatory against her, and Duffy requested that the site be removed from Google’s search results. Google declined to do so, prompting Duffy to file a lawsuit against Google. The court sided with Duffy, and found that Google can be considered a publisher of the content even if it originated at another site.

The defendant was a publisher of allegedly defamatory paragraphs on its websites and a republisher via hyperlinks to the Ripoff Report webpages the subject of those paragraphs being those for which the plaintiff sues and of which the plaintiff gave notification and which the defendant failed to remove within a reasonable time. This applies to the first four Ripoff Report webpages and the paragraphs referring to them and several paragraphs referring to secondary websites’

The fact that Google provided hyperlinks is considered important by the court, and simply displaying a URL and forcing the user to type it in themselves in order to visit the site would have made a difference in the case.

If a search of Dr Duffy’s name had merely returned the URL of the first Ripoff Report webpage without functioning as a hyperlink and without accompanying text, it could not be said that Google was a publisher of the content of that material. To access the first Ripoff Report webpage, the user would need to enter the URL into the address box of the internet browser.

Google is liable not just for linking to defamatory content, but also if its autocomplete feature generates text that can be considered defamatory. Despite the fact that autocomplete function is an automated algorithm based on previous user input, the court still found Google liable for the words it generated.

The words “janice duffy psychic stalker” are generated by Google’s programs as a result of Google’s programming. The mere fact that the words are programmed to be generated because the user or others have previously searched for those words makes no difference to the physical element. The mental element will be present if Google failed to remove the words within a reasonable time after notification
Activist groups like the EFF are already raising concerns about this case setting a dangerous precedent. They believe that third parties like search engines should not be held liable for content that they link to, and that doing so will be a threat the ability of search engines to provide their service. The focus should be on going after the sites that actually created the defamatory content in the first place. They also favorably mention countries like Brazil which have recently legislated on this issue and require a court order for search engines to remove defamatory results, not just a request from any individual.
Is it right for Google to be liable for defamatory results that show up in its search engine? Leave your comments below.

Max Michael

Senior Writer

I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.