Defteros v Google LLC [2020] VSC 219

Mr George Defteros is a solicitor specialising in criminal law. He acted for a number of defendants to criminal charges arising out of Melbourne’s Gangland wars of the 80s and 90s.

He sued Google LLC for defamation arising out the results of searches made available by Google’s search engine.

In essence, Mr Defteros argued that the publications conveyed the defamatory meaning that he had become a friend and confidant of his criminal clients.

The judgment of Justice Melinda Richards in the Supreme Court of Victoria is an admirably lucid and well-structured analysis of a host of legal and factual issues.

Understandably, the bulk of the judgment is concerned with defamation law. However, there are questions of liability for publication via search engines which may arise in an IP context, for example in copyright.

Google argued that it could not be liable because its search engine is fully automated and does not intend the communication of any particular words or images, including any third party web page to which a user might navigate.

Her Honour, citing a number of recent authorities, rejected this argument. She held, at [40], that the Google search engine is not a passive tool. It is designed by humans who work for Google to operate in the way it does, and in such a way that identified objectionable content can be removed, by human intervention, from the search results that Google displays to a user.

No doubt, Google is working toward a completely artificial intelligence run algorithm which might defeat such claims in the future. The best it can hope for until then is to trust in the fact that defamation laws vary greatly from country to country and indeed may not exist in some nations, at all.

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