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Linking to news does not make Google liable for defamation, Australian court rules

Google cannot be held liable for defamation simply for providing hyperlinks to other web pages, Australia’s highest court has ruled today. Ars Technica reports: By itself, providing a URL is not “participating in the communication of a defamatory statement which happens to be at that address… In reality, a hypertext link is only a tool allowing a person to navigate to another webpage,” the High Court of Australia Ruling said. The case concerns a Google search result linked to a 2004 article published by The Age under the title “Underworld loses precious friend in court”. The article describes Melbourne-based barrister George Defteros, who was charged with conspiracy to murder and incitement to murder the day before it was published. The charge was dropped in 2005. Defteros sued Google after learning that a Google search of his name produced a link to the article and an excerpt. Google refused to remove the article from search results despite a request from Defteros in 2016.

A lower court judge “concluded that the Underworld article conveyed a defamatory charge that the respondent had gone from being a professional lawyer to being a confidant and friend of criminal elements”, noted today’s decision. The lower courts decided that Google “published the defamatory matter because the provision of the search result contributed to the communication of the content of the Underworld article to the user, in that it assisted in its publication “, according to a summary of today’s decision. (PDF) provided by the High Court of Australia. Google had been ordered to pay Defteros $40,000 (about $27,710 in USD). But overturning the lower court rulings, a 5-2 majority of the High Court found that Google failed to publish the defamatory case.

Google “did not assist The Age in communicating the defamatory material contained in the Underworld article” because “the provision of a hyperlink in the search result merely facilitated access to the article Underworld and was not an act of participation in the bilateral process of communicating the contents of this article to a third party,” the summary of the decision states. “There was no other basis for concluding publication because the appellant had no part in the writing or dissemination of the defamatory material.” […] Today’s ruling might have been different had Google been paid to promote The Age article. The appeal “does not provide an opportunity to consider whether the conclusion would be different with respect to hyperlinks which, in agreement with a third party, are promoted by the appellant as a result of a search request” , indicates the judgment. “Nor have any issues been raised in this call about a service provided in the aggregation of news results. Suffice it to say that it is possible that the caller and a third party share a common intention to publish the content of a third-party web page which, by agreement between the caller and the third party, is promoted as a search result.”