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Google can be held liable for defamation

Business Law News | October 2015

In the case of Duffy v Google Inc. [2015] SASC 170 on 27 October 2015, the Court found Google Inc. [“Google”] to be responsible for defamatory content about Dr Janice Duffy [“Duffy”] which appeared in Google’s search results on their websites.

During the period between December 2007 and January 2009, a website known as the Ripoff Report published six articles about Duffy. A number of other websites also published some material about Duffy which had supposedly come from the Ripoff Report articles. To establish whether a party has engaged in defamatory conduct there must be evidence that this party actively published defamatory material that is incorrect and damaging to another party’s reputation.

In September 2009, Duffy contacted Google to notify them that searches of her name which were made through Google’s website produced results which included paragraphs of the defamatory articles published by the Ripoff Report website and contained hyperlinks to the six articles on this website. Duffy requested that Google remove the defamatory paragraphs and hyperlinks from their search engines.

Duffy attempted to have the defamatory content removed from Google for a period of six years. The defamatory material found on the Ripoff Report website was not removed by Google until 2011. The defamatory material which appeared on other websites was not removed by Google at that time.

In July 2011 Duffy contacted Google to ask that they remove her name from their Autocomplete utility which produce a defamatory alternative search term “Janice Duffy Psychic Stalker”. Google did not comply with this request.

In the proceedings that followed Duffy claimed that after notifying Google about the defamatory material appearing in their search results, Google continued to publish the material on their websites to a substantial number of readers. Google denied publication of the material and relied on the defences of innocent dissemination, qualified privilege, justification and contextual truth. All defences relied on by Google failed.

The Court found that Google were the publisher of the defamatory material which appeared on their websites and that Google were also a re-publisher of this material through the hyperlinks on their websites which connected to the Ripoff Report webpages which had been published to a large amount of unknown persons in Australia. The Court also found that Google had failed to remove the material within a reasonable time after being notified by Duffy.

These proceedings are due back before the Court in early November 2015 to establish damages and Google may appeal to the High Court.

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