back to article Google is a 'publisher' says Aussie court as it hands £20k damages to gangland lawyer

An Australian court has declared that Google is a "publisher" and awarded an aggrieved lawyer £20,000 after searches on his name returned criminal allegations from his past. Today the Australian state of Victoria's highest court ruled that Google was legally liable for publishing an excerpt from a 2004 report in its search …

  1. Nunyabiznes Silver badge

    I'm not a Google fanboi by any means, but if there is a webpage with (apparently) relevant information, shouldn't a web search return a link in its results?

    Now if Google were archiving the offending webpage after it was legally obliged to be taken down -and- returned the link in a search, that is a problem.

    It would help to know if The Age were still publishing the article after it had been legally required to take it down.

    1. Blackjack

      Google does cache webpages but not for that long.

      Really this is stupid, is not a publisher, is a web search engine. You may as well sue libraries for having copies of newspapers too.

      1. Cynic_999 Silver badge

        You cannot sue a library for having old newspapers, but you could sue a newspaper for re-publishing or mentioning your "spent" crime without good reason. I generally agree that people should have the right for things they did (or were accused of doing) to be forgotten after a period of time. If every online search made on your name came up with articles describing in scathing terms something stupid you did or were accused of doing as a child decades ago, in my opinion that would be very wrong.

        Having something available in a library or archive that can only be seen if you go to a fair amount of trouble to search for it is one thing. To have the same thing automatically presented if you merely type a person's name into your laptop is something else entirely. People change. The fact that someone made (say) a grossly racist comment 40 years ago should not be reason to refuse their job application today, or even think that they are likely to still hold those same views.

    2. Snake Silver badge

      I am pretty sure that the argument is that the argument is *no* longer relevant as the charges were reversed (dropped, but Google's search results fail to reflect that fact with no update or link to this additional information. A dismissed issue is no issue at all; I would personally believe that Google's responsibility is based upon the ranking of the, now, depreciated article (if Google places the accusation article highly but places the correction articles poorly).

      1. Brian Miller Silver badge

        But isn't a fact exactly that, a fact? The lawyer was charged. Fact of action, by the police, and is public record. It doesn't matter if the charges were dropped later. The charges were filed.

        This looks a lot like 1984, where the past gets scrubbed and rewritten.

        1. The Dogs Meevonks

          So by your argument... anyone charged with any kind of crime deserves to have that follow them around for the rest of their life... with no regard what so ever to the facts/truth regarding those 'allegations'.

          If nothing has been proven and charges were dropped... then there is no reason to continue to 'publish' links to said 'incorrect' article from 16yrs ago.

          Innocent until proven guilty obviously doesn't apply in your mind... and having false allegations made against people can ruin lives regardless of any conviction not being applied.

          1. Mike Moyle Silver badge

            The problem with that argument is that it assumes that Google has no indexed articles that mention that the charges were dropped. If they DON'T, then the argument might hold water; if they DO, and they are available with an appropriate search then, as far as I can see, they plaintiff has no case.

            Insert requisite "IANAL" disclaimer here.

            1. Headley_Grange Silver badge

              @Mike. It doesn't matter whether Google presents the articles about the charges being dropped. If I've got a list of potential lawyers and I find that one has been charged by the police then he goes to the bottom of the list straight away. As long as I've got a choice I'd be unlikely to employ him, even if I saw the articles about him being exonerated. "There's no smoke without fire" -- and I think that a lot of people would do the same, wouldn't they? All Google has done is to make it practical to find the information, but in doing so it has created a situation whereby this guy is likely to suffer prejudice in carrying out his profession, which doesn't seem fair.

              Having said all that, I don't think it can be the reason that the Aussie court found against Google because they only awarded him £20k, which is hardly compensation for loss of work for a lawyer.

              When the EU ruled on this I was torn - and still am. It doesn't seem fair that something which is unfairly prejudicial can follow you round for ever, but on the other hand it opens up the prospect of people hiding bad stuff about themselves, which is also of concern. If you're not directly impacted by it then it's easy to say that facts are the facts as long as they are fairly presented, but if you've been incorrectly or maliciously accused of a serious crime and subsequently cleared that could literally ruin your life if it pops up every time someone types your name into the search bar.

              1. Adrian Midgley 1

                OTOH some clients

                might think he could understand their problems.

              2. Graham Cobb

                Although I am also slightly torn, I understand why this has to be the case. As we know, data about people is treated very differently from other data in law in most countries. I think almost all commentators here welcome the concept of privacy and the rules around it.

                Along with those come other laws which are not so widely accepted but are of the same type. These include the things like the concept of "spent convictions", as well as the "fair reporting" issues in this case.

                The bottom line is that there are many laws which affect what can be stored in or reported in a dossier about a person. If I ask an agency to prepare a dossier on a potential hire for me they are not allowed, under law, to include things like spent convictions, and would be clearly committing libel if they included this lawyer's charge without mentioning his exoneration.

                Nowadays there is no reason to go to an agency to ask them to prepare a dossier: you just use a search engine. So, to protect both the subject and the opportunity for research agencies to compete, it is clear that search engines must be forced to apply the relevant privacy and other rules when providing information about people.

                Bottom line: if you search for things other than people you can reasonably expect a search engine to provide a list of pages matching the search term. But if your search is about people the search engine must apply the relevant country-specific laws about providing personal information.

              3. Blackjack

                Instead people will find that George Defteros had to sue Google to erase his past.

                I don't see how that is much better.

                1. Anonymous Coward
                  Anonymous Coward

                  And I'm sure Jeffrey Archer would have sued Google 20 years ago.

                  If a story is written and contains no errors at the time of publishing, should we bury the story if, as is the case here, the case is later dropped? The gentleman in this story certainly had a colourful history outside of this case and given the corruption in parts of the Victorian police and criminal justice system, having a case dropped may not be any indication of innocence. Did the state of Victoria also have to pay the dry cleaning expenses to remove blood stains from his clothes?

                  While the argument of innocent until proven guilty has some merit, I would be interested in seeing what percentage of innocent people go on to repeat their actions and get convicted on their second/third/fourth attempt. Don't believe me? Take a look at some of the BBC's articles that have been removed from Google and decide for yourself:

                  https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/internet/entries/1d765aa8-600b-4f32-b110-d02fbf7fd379

                2. Anonymous Coward
                  Anonymous Coward

                  Dangerous business being a gangland lawyer

                  In Cape Town in the recent past two gangland lawyers have been erased in a hail of bullets.

                  A gang or their rivals was displeased with their services.

                  Anonymous - I want to keep my head down.

              4. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

                Things go into the public record . fact . end of story. for better or for worse . you cant start editing it.

                With no google and no internet , there would still be microfiches of newspapers detailing all kinds of things.

                see also Barbara Streissand

            2. Elsmarc

              The problem is the article with the accusations will not necessarily (and probably will not) be linked to an article about dismissing the charges.

            3. The Dogs Meevonks

              and the counter side of that is if those indexed results are placed higher or lower that the inaccurate information.

              Links to false information shouldn't be indexed in the first place.

              But that's not the issues... it's if google is a publisher or not... and they are in my eyes. they have long tried to argue that they're not to avoid responsibility; both ethically and morally; for the information they provide to people.

              It's about time they got reigned in and dealt with... if this opens the floodgates to more lawsuits... so be it. Companies like this only understand one thing... greed and the pursuit of money and power... anything that clips their wings is a good thing these days.

          2. Doug_S

            So what if it "follows you around"?

            The fact you were charged will always be true, and any newspapers, web sites, legal databases etc. will have that information. Are you saying that libraries should be obligated to black out an article in their copy of your local newspaper saying "Dogs Meevonks was charged with peeing on a fire hydrant on Apr 30 2020" after the charges are dropped on May 15th? If not, why is Google being singled out for special treatment.

            I have no love for Google, but this "right to be forgotten" that attempts to rewrite history is insane. If your wife is murdered and there's an article saying "police immediately said Dogs Meevonks is not as suspect as he was out of town at the time" and then later they decide you are a suspect because your alibi proves untrue and they charge you should Google be required to also remove that article making it sound like you were innocent? Should go both ways, right?

            1. gravewax

              Re: So what if it "follows you around"?

              The problem here is under defamation and libel laws providing information about someone that leads to a negative impact due to it being incomplete or false is actionable in most countries. Google by providing the charges without the corresponding exoneration is misleading the reader (as would potentially any site publishing the information). information about people is judged in a very different way in the courts to general facts and you have to be exceedingly careful when publishing something negative about someone. So if they determine google is a publisher then absolutely they are libel.

            2. Cynic_999 Silver badge

              Re: So what if it "follows you around"?

              It's about availability. If you apply for a job, for example, the employer is unlikely to go to a library to trawl through its newspaper archives to see whether you appear in any, but is quite likely to put your name into an online search engine to see what comes up. Bad news tends to get reported far more readily than good news. So an arrest for public indecency when you got drunk 30 years ago as a teenager and peed in a hedge is far more likely to appear in a search than the fact that you made your last company £billions in successful sales, or have donated £thousands to charity.

            3. Zane-insane

              Re: So what if it "follows you around"?

              It's not rerewiting history, or removing articles. It's simply delisting certain results, but only in instances when the persons name is entered. The result will still appear if they they search on different terms, or indeed search on a newspapers site directly. It's not an absolute right. They can and do argue about public interest, and they can stay up if they can justify that it is still relevant. Nothing to do with going to libraries and editing archives. The archive stays as it is. It's simply a balance of competing rights, looking at the proportionality of how Google indexes results. I don't need to see my neighbours mugshot from 10 years ago when he was wearing ladies clothes and was wrongly arrested for shoplifting. I don't need to be paying extra tax on his unemployment benefit, because he can't get a job because of that article. I don't need to see that result when I enter his name, there's likely no public interest. But the article can still appear in other search results if the newspaper really wants it to, just not appear in searches under his name

        2. Cynic_999 Silver badge

          A fact that is reported out of context or without relevant background can be so misleading as to amount to a falsehood. "He made a fortune from crime" may well be a true statement. But if it refers to a successful carreer as an honest criminal barrister, it is highly misleading.

        3. Cynic_999 Silver badge

          If you were ever suspected of a serious crime that you did not commit, I guarantee that you would consider it grossly unjust if every time someone typed your name into a popular search engine they were shown an article repeating those suspicions. Many people would decide "No smoke without fire" or "Better safe than sorry", and you'd find yourself being refused all sorts of things with no reason given.

        4. TVU Silver badge

          "But isn't a fact exactly that, a fact? The lawyer was charged. Fact of action, by the police, and is public record. It doesn't matter if the charges were dropped later. The charges were filed"

          Indeed, and all this action by this plaintiff has done is reawaken everything and draw everyone's attention to the plaintiff's background and original charge. In my view, this is just one huge publicity own goal.

    3. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Can easily find the article

      Searching for "George Defteros" shows lots of articles about this recent ruling. To get the the controversial article you need "George Defteros the age 2004". The link is not on the first page returned by Google but Bing does put it on the first page.

      Was The Age legally required to rectify the old article?

      1. SimonL

        Re: Can easily find the article

        Presumably Bing will receive the same fine?

        I hate Google as much as the next person, but agree they should not be held responsible unless they specifically went against a court ruling.

        Surely any search engine that shows the article in their results should receive the fine??

  2. mark l 2 Silver badge

    While £20K to Google is probably not even 10 seconds worth of profit it does set a worrying precedence that a search engine can be found liable for showing snippets of an article from a third party website.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    There's a reason for the term Kangaroo Court

    Bottom line is if you are charged with a crime & later the charges are dropped or you are otherwise exonerated, it's still a historical fact that you were once charged. Rewriting history isn't the solution unless you are fundamentally dishonest.

    1. Cynic_999 Silver badge

      Re: There's a reason for the term Kangaroo Court

      Rewriting history is not what is being suggested. Omitting irrelevant information is more what is under discussion. I'm pretty sure you would not want the most unsavoury things you have done to be brought up whenever your name is mentioned.

  4. Mark 85 Silver badge

    Right to be forgotten?

    I thought Google implemented that. Or did they decide to stop doing that?

    1. The Central Scrutinizer

      Re: Right to be forgotten?

      They forgot.

  5. ExampleOne

    I have no problem with the contention that google are considered a publisher for all material published (I.e. served to an end user) by their servers. This isn’t particularly outrageous. Further, it appears in this case it isn’t the initial publishing of the information that is the subject of the complaint, it was continuing to present the results post notification. This isn’t that far removed from the Spanish case!

    The interesting point in this case, and the Spanish case, is that the original website probably has a legitimate interest defence on the original article which sounds like it is an archive site. However old newspapers may no longer be relevant, and google really shouldn’t be allowed to present archive material as recent results, especially once warned presenting without full context could be defamatory.

    Any other ruling on “Are google the publisher?” raises the question of who is the publisher for information served by aggregators and other social media sites: I am pretty certain The Age would legitimately be able to defend having their archive available online (not a major problem as most people wont find the article there anyway, and without google etc would almost certainly appreciate the context if they did) and how can they be held liable for the actions of Google? This principle is clearly covered in the EU at least where it is clear that public domain data (I.e. The Age archives) can still be protected data (I.e. not fair game for google to scrape and publish all over the internet).

  6. John Savard Silver badge

    Threshhold

    The court ruled that Google became liable because the individual involved had notified it about the article.

    But did he send Google proof that the article was misleading?

    Without that requirement, Google could be required to conceal search results about people who in fact committed crimes, but against whom charges were withdrawn because the police felt they couldn't get a conviction - some evidence being inadmissible, some witness being un-cooperative, and so on.

    That won't promote public safety.

    1. Cynic_999 Silver badge

      Re: Threshhold

      "

      ... because the police felt they couldn't get a conviction - some evidence being inadmissible, some witness being un-cooperative, and so on.

      "

      Or the fact that he was completely innocent. Or is that something that you believe so unlikely that it can be discounted?

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Different countries rules clash

    It gets very complicated when one country has a right to be forgotten law, bu the individual goes to another country where the offense does not get forgotten and might even block you from entry.

  8. Ashto5

    How can it have affected him ?

    The guy still went in to have a career and a good one by the sounds of it.

    Google should take this in the chin and see what it can do about linkage and dating, then people who are cleared could inform the search engine of the linkage and viola the 2 things can be shown together.

    Historical fact and historical outcome.

    This will only work by the person informing the search engine of the linkage.

    May be labour intensive but that should be the price of being the top dog in the search world.

  9. Neoc

    I am not a lawyer, obviously, but from what I gather this kicked off after Google failed to remove the link to the article when requested back in 2016.

    Also, as far as I am concerned Google - and Facebook, to name another - are publishers. I have no control of how they massage their results, and they present me data that THEY judge is relevant to what I want (and, I assume, what companies/politicos/etc are willing to pay to be highly placed in the feed). By doing so, they no longer simply display posts by users, they are inserting editorial judgement into the loop... and that makes them publishers.

  10. Toni the terrible
    Unhappy

    Newspapers

    When newspapers present derogatory information / stories about a person, and that is shown to be false / inaccurate - if you are rich enough to sue - they usually print a retraction (but usually not if you are not influential or cannot sue) but even then they often put the retraction in some out of the way part of the paper - increadibly rarely on the front page (unless its a rivals misdeed). All this is in the public domain and any search manual or electronic will bring up the first articles - any retractions or updates are liable to be much harder to find. So nothing new. But not including the updated information in your report/search on someone (or an update link) is incompetence or even negligence which morally at least deserves a good hard rap on the knuckles / other punishment. Whether they are a publisher or not is beside the point.

    In any case your paper trail / electronic trail is always there you cannot get rid of it. obscure it yes, remove it no.

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