Google has received validation that it is not a publisher in a decision by Australia’s High Court.
The court ruled that Google only provides hyperlinks to articles, and therefore had not itself defamed Melbourne attorney George Defteros in a link to a 2004 article in The Age.
Defteros had sued Google for defamation, and the Supreme Court of Victoria ruled last year that Google was a publisher and had, in fact, defamed the lawyer when it linked to the article stating that Defteros had been charged with conspiracy and incitement to murder, charges that were dropped, in response to a search.
But the High Court stated, “In reality, a hyperlink is merely a tool which enables a person to navigate to another webpage.”
It also noted that the article was not written by an employee or agent of Google.
"It was written by a reporter with no connection to the appellant, and published by an independent newspaper over which the appellant had no control or influence,” said the ruling, which was supported by five out of seven justices.
Defteros sued Google in 2016 after he found the link in a search, although Google removed the link.
Two of the justices noted that the court had not been asked to decide if the decision would have been different if it concerned paid hyperlinks on Google, the Guardian reports.
But the court noted that Google “does not own or control the internet."
The defamation award was A$40,000, a minor sum for Google. But the principle was a crucial one because of the potential for similar cases.
Last year, in a separate action, the High Court ruled that Google was liable for A$715,00 after it allegedly refused to remove allegedly “relentless, racist, vilifactory, abusive and defamatory” videos about a politician from YouTube.
The Court said Google had made money by hosting the videos.
In the U.S., conservatives seem to be of two minds on the subject. On the one hand, some want Google and Facebook to be accountable for purportedly libelous material.
On the other, some are also demanding tech giants like Google and Facebook be deemed common carriers, subject to the same type of regulation as a telecom, and in May an Ohio court stated that Google may be just that. Presumably, a common carrier that does not edit content, as Google does not, would not be liable for defamatory statements made on its network.
Reuters notes that Australia is “one of the few Western nations where online platforms have the same legal responsibility as publishers.”