The High Court of Australia overturned the 2020 ruling that search results pointing to news made Google a publisher.
This case involved a lawyer named George Defteros who was charged with conspiracy alongside one of his main criminal clients.
The charges against Defteros were dropped, but for years Google search results produced a link to an article in a local newspaper. age – known as the “Underworld article” – reporting that he had been indicted.
Defteros was upset that the allegation remained on file and that Google helped people find it. So he sued – and won.
Google appealed to the High Court, Australia’s ultimate court. He won and had lower court orders against him overturned
A declaration [PDF] of the High Court explains that the article on Defteros was defamatory, but that a majority of judges found that Google “did not help age by communicating the defamatory matter contained in the Underworld article to the third-party user.”
“The provision of a hyperlink in the search result merely facilitated access to the Underworld article and was not an act of participation in the two-way process of communicating the contents of this article to a third party,” adds the press release.
Google is therefore not a publisher and cannot defame people with search results under Australian common law.
The full judgment [PDF] reveals that the decision was not unanimous. Two dissenting judges worried about a number of issues, including that Google failed to act to remove the offending article from its indexes, and that the adtech giant surely knows it has a symbiotic relationship with newspapers.
Readers of the 97-page judgment looking for ways to keep Google hooked in search results will therefore find material to work with.
But in the many jurisdictions that share legal DNA with Australia, the decision will be read more closely for the reasoning that Google is not a publisher.
The Land Down Under remains a tricky place for online defamation as a ruling that comments on social media can defame remains in place. The nation also retains the power to force tech players to identify users and produce their encrypted messages. ®