Google Defamation: Will The Search Giant Survive Down Under?

Google defamation case
Google Defamation: Will Google have to shutter its doors down under after an unfavorable online defamation ruling against the search engine?

Has anybody in the United States successfully sued Google for defamation? Attempts have been waged, but the plaintiffs’ crusades usually fail. Sure, folks win defamation lawsuits against authors of defamatory statements. But against Google? Nah. Google almost always walks away unscathed – fresh as a Mentos factory.

Why?

Stateside statutes make it very difficult for claimants to win “Google defamation” lawsuits. After all, Big G doesn’t create 95% of the content it displays; it simply acts as an aggregator of third-party information.

But not every country has laws that protect Internet service providers and user-content platforms. Recently, an Australian court ruled against the mega-search-engine in what has quickly become a high-profile online libel lawsuit, which, theoretically, has the power to decimate Google down under.

Doctor Defamation Lawsuits: The Usual Story

It happens a lot. A medical professional treats a petulant “Mr. Patient.” Things don’t go well. Mr. Patient isn’t thrilled with the doctor’s work or bedside manner or billing practices or bad breath. So, good ole’ Patient takes to the Internet and shout-types his woes to the world.

Sometimes, in online patient v. doctor brawls, the digital diatribes are legitimate complaints; sometimes they’re exaggerations, and sometimes they’re bold-faced lies. No matter the category, online reviews have the power to demolish practices and ruin careers. Which is why many doctors move forward with Internet defamation lawsuits in the face of hyperbolic, inaccurate and damaging Internet rants.

And believe it or not, the case jurisdiction has a huge effect on the likelihood if its success.

Defamation Laws Vary, Greatly, By Nation

Nearly every country in the world has defamation laws, but the terms of those laws are as varied as humanity itself. For example, in countries that still recognize a monarchy (not all), the crime of lese majeste (in today’s parlance, trash talking royals) can get you thrown in the clink – for years. In some non-secular countries, profanity and blasphemy can land you six feet under.

And believe it or not, British Commonwealth countries and the United States – though similar in many ways – are on arguably opposite ends of the defamation scale. In short, countries like Great Britain, Australia and Canada are primarily plaintiff-friendly when it comes to slander and libel laws, whereas the U.S. is decidedly defendant-friendly.

Australian Doctor Disparaged on U.S.-Based Ripoff Report Goes After Google for Defamation

The contracts between U.S. and Australian defamation laws recently took center stage in a shocking ruling by the South Australian Supreme Court – and the decision may have Google a shaking in its bytes.

Here’s the story:

A peeved Australian medical patient blasted a doctor on infamous consumer review website RipoffReport.com. Clearly, the doctor wasn’t pleased – so she initiated legal action. Interestingly, the doctor opted to include Google as a defendant. Interesting because it’s almost unheard of to win an indexing defamation lawsuit against the Mighty G (especially in the United States). Nevertheless, our intrepid doctor went for it. Why?

Well, when the disparaging and damaging content appeared on RipoffReport.com, the doctor alerted Google of its defamatory nature. But Google did nothing. The hyperlink remained front and center in the index. She felt the search engine ought to be held liable, too.

Doctor Wins Google Defamation Lawsuit

And guess what? She WON! Against Google! The Teflon Google! A court held the search engine accountable for content published on Ripoffreport.com!

“How!?” You might ask.

The court reasoned:

“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.”

A U.S. court would not have returned this verdict. No way, no how. Because there’s a law in the United States – commonly known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – which effectively frees internet service providers – and many social media platforms – from defamation liability over third-party content. Or, to put it more simply: many websites are not held legally accountable for user content and posts.

Read more about Section 230 of the CDA

Google Defamation Rules: What Happens If A Country Doesn’t Protect ISPs From Third-Party Liability?

But what happens when an international online behemoth, like Google, is slapped by a ‘foreign’ court? Does it affect the rest of the world? After all, the Internet has smudged the line between nation states. And even though there is a Google for each one, thanks to VPNs, cross-border networks and, heck, even easily available travel options, people aren’t necessarily relegated to their hometown Google.

The Law Is Nebulous

So, must the search engine apply an Australian court’s ruling across the global board? Is the mighty G responsible for thwarting an Australian online rant-typer on “Google, America”?

To be sure, no definitive answer exists. Like the Internet itself, international Internet laws are complex and in constant flux. Countries try to do their parts by limiting the amount of “online libel tourism” (Internet defamation plaintiffs who shop for the friendliest jurisdiction). But government statutes aren’t airtight. In fact, a few years ago, the U.K. tried to put a stop to libel tourism by revising their defamation laws, but people are still finding loopholes to use England’s ostensibly pro-plaintiff slander and libel laws.

The Inevitable Upcoming Fight Against Australia’s Google Defamation Ruling

The Australian defamation ruling against Google has tech and legal tongues wagging. Pundits are concerned about the possible (and largely theoretical) censorship implications. The decision, arguably, also sets a bad precedence for continued online innovation.

Every pundit and lawyer expects Google to appeal. It’s sure as done. If a higher Australian court doesn’t overturn the current mandate, Google may morph into a very different search animal down under. Until then, expect a metric ton of amicus briefs to be written, by independent watch groups and attorneys, on behalf of Google.

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