Trkulja v Google Inc LLC [No 5] [2012] VSC 533

This case in the Victorian Supreme Court turned on the question of whether Google could be considered the publisher of its search engine results for the purposes of defamation law.

This is the first case in the world to find that Google can be held legally responsible for defaming someone through their search results.

The claimant, Milorad Trkulja, sought compensation from Google Inc LLC (“Google”) in respect of search results which contained links to images and articles that contained false imputations that Mr Trkulja is involved in organised crime.

The jury found that there were imputations against the claimant in the Google Images search (but not the Web Search) – including those which falsely linked him to notorious criminal Tony Mokbel – which did in fact damage his reputation.

However, Google argued that, even if the search engine results damaged Mr Trkulja’s reputation, Google could not be held to have defamed him because the search engine results were ‘innocently disseminated’ – that is, the search results were a fully automated index published by Google without any human knowledge of the defamatory content of the links.

In this way Google argued that it was in an analogous situation to a newsagent who sells a newspaper containing a defamatory article or a librarian who stocks a book that is defamatory – they may be publishers of the material, but because they usually do not have knowledge of the defamatory contents of their publications their role is generally found to be purely passive and without liability.

However, the claimant had made repeated requests to Google prior to the trial that they remove the links to images and articles in their search results which he considered to be defamatory. Google had repeatedly failed to take steps to comply with these requests.

As a result, the claimant argued that the defence could no longer argue that they had innocently disseminated the content – they had been informed of the content of the search results and had failed to take steps to remove the relevant URL for the page upon which the content appeared.

The Court ruled that, after the expiration of a reasonable period after the claimant had requested the content be taken down, Google had not innocently disseminated the content.

The Court awarded the claimant $200,000 in compensation.