We use cookies to collect and analyse information on site performance and usage to improve and customise your experience, where applicable. View our Cookies Policy. Click Accept and continue to use our website or Manage to review and update your preferences.

Google is not liable for libel, Australian court finds
Pic: Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

18 Aug 2022 / technology Print

Google not liable for libel, Australian court finds

Australia’s High Court has ruled that Google is not a publisher, which means it cannot be held responsible for defamatory content.

“In reality, a hyperlink is merely a tool which enables a person to navigate to another webpage,” a joint statement by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel and Justice Jacqueline Gleeson said. 

The court yesterday (17 August) overturned a ruling which found that Google had engaged in defamation by supplying a link to a contentious newspaper article.

The seven-judge panel of the High Court of Australia voted 5-2 to throw out an earlier finding that the Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O) unit played a part in publishing the disputed article by acting as a ‘library’ housing it, saying the website had no active role.

The question of liability for online defamation has been debated for some time in Australia, with a review of libel laws yet to give a definitive answer on accountability for large platforms, such as Google and Meta.

The case stems from a 2004 article that suggested that a criminal defence lawyer had become a "confidant" of criminals, according to the published judgment. 

The lawyer, George Defteros, found a link to the story in a 2016 Google search of his name, and had Google remove it after it was viewed by 150 people, the judgment said.

Defteros sued in a state court, which found that Google was a publisher, and ordered it to pay him A$40,000 (€27,423.57).

Google appealed the judgment after Victoria’s Court of Appeal in 2021 refused its attempts to overturn the defamation finding.

"The Underworld article was not written by any employee or agent of the appellant [Google]," two of the panel judges wrote in yesterday’s judgment.

Written by reporter 

"It was written by a reporter with no connection to the appellant, and published by an independent newspaper over which the appellant had no control or influence."

Google "does not own or control the internet", they wrote.

Google made no immediate comment.

Defteros said in a statement that the process had been "long, drawn-out, expensive and extremely stressful", but he felt vindicated because the court agreed the article was defamatory, even though Google was not liable. 

Last year, the Australian High Court found a newspaper publisher liable for defamatory comments left beneath an article it had posted on Facebook.

The difference between the 2021 Facebook case and the Defteros case was that the media companies last year "invited and encouraged comment", while Google "did not provide a forum or place where it could be communicated, nor did it encourage the writing of comment in response", the judges wrote.

Some newspaper publishers have stopped allowing commentary underneath news articles posted to social-media sites, such as Facebook.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland