Google hit by Australian legal precedent

There has been a precedent-setting case down under which could send a chill through websites throughout the former British commonwealth.

Michael Trkulja won a landmark defamation case against Google over search results that linked him to underworld boss Tony Mokbel.

The ruling means that websites that link to offensive material may no longer be able to hide behind the defence that they are not technically publishers.

A court has ruled that websites have some responsibility for what passes through their search systems.

Christopher Dibb, barrister for Trkulja said his client had never been involved in criminal activity, but was shot in the back at a restaurant in Melbourne during gangland wars in 2004.

The now defunct website Melbourne Crime published photos labelled with his name.

Trkulja asked Google to remove the content in 2009, but the company told him to go forth and multiply.

Trkulja’s barrister Christopher Dibb said there is no reason why the same would not apply to social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, if they were issued with a take down notice.

Simon Rigby, a partner at Holman Webb lawyers told the Sydney Morning Herald that Google and Yahoo have to respond to take down notices or face the consequences.

Where Google went wrong was that it failed to respond to Trkulja’s complaint. While it could still use a defence of innocent dissemination it had messed its own nest because it did know that the defamatory material was there.

It means that Google and other search engines will have to take down defamatory material if they are advised of it.

So far similar cases in the UK have ruled that search engines are purely mechanical devices and are not responsible for the material published. But that was not really based on a similar argument. Australia has the same legal system as the UK and the same Queen.

In March, Trkulja won a similar case against Yahoo!, which accepted that if someone accessed material through Yahoo! then they were publishers. Trkulja was awarded $225,000 in damages.