Australia’s highest court has ruled that Google is not a publisher of the websites it links to in search results, finding hyperlinks to search engines does not amount to publication.
A majority of High Court judges ruled on Wednesday that Google was not the publisher of a defamatory article in The Age about a Victorian lawyer because it was a search engine that only provided hyperlinks to this content.
“In reality, a hyperlink is just a tool that allows a person to navigate to another webpage,” said a joint statement from Chief Justice Susan Kiefel and Justice Jacqueline Gleeson.
Google took the case to the High Court after the Victoria Court of Appeal in 2021 refused its attempts to overturn a libel ruling in favor of George Defteros, a lawyer for prominent underworld figures.
The Victorian court found that Google was the publisher of a defamatory article by The Age in 2004 because its search results were instrumental in communicating the content to readers.
The US-based search engine argued that providing a hyperlink to a story did not constitute publication and therefore it could not be held liable for any defamatory material contained in the story.
Google has warned it could be forced to censor its search results if the top court upholds the appeals court’s decision, which would have a “devastating” impact on the way the internet works.
Five of the seven High Court justices ruled in favor of Google, ruling that the search engine results ‘merely made it easier to access’ the Age’s story, which was not enough to amount to a publication in the legal sense.
“There was no other basis for finding publication because the appellant [Google] had no part in the writing or dissemination of the defamatory matter,” the judgment summary reads.
The court rejected Defteros’ claim that the search results “prompted” the person seeking to open the website, finding that a person was already looking for particular information before the result was received.
In a separate statement, Judge Stephen Gageler noted that while he agreed with Kiefel and Gleeson, the case differed from a sponsored link where Google received ad revenue.
Judges James Edelman and Simon Steward said the appeal case did not ask the court to decide whether its conclusion would be different if the hyperlinks were paid to be promoted on Google. They agreed that Google had “no involvement” in publishing the article.
Judges Patrick Keane and Michelle Gordon said they would have dismissed Google’s appeal.
Defteros had clients including mobsters Alphonse Gangitano and Mario Condello, and underworld identity Mick Gatto.
The lawyer was charged alongside Condello with conspiracy and incitement to murder killer Carl Williams, his father George and another man, although the charges against Defteros were later dropped.
Defteros successfully sued Google in 2016, arguing that The Age’s publication of an article about his arrest on conspiracy and incitement to murder charges defamed him.
Google was notified of the defamatory article in February 2016, 11 years after it was published, but did not remove it until December of the same year.
In 2020, Supreme Court of Victoria Justice Melinda Richards ruled that the article implied Defteros crossed a line from professional lawyer to confidant and friend of criminal elements and ordered that he be paid $40,000 from damages and interests.
This decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal but overturned by the High Court.