Google has asked the High Court of Australia to overturn a 2020 ruling it warns could have a “devastating” effect on the wider internet. In a filing the search giant made on Friday, Google claims it will be forced to “act as censor” if the country’s highest court doesn’t overturn a decision that awarded a lawyer $40,000 in defamation damages for an article the company had linked to through its search engine, reports The Guardian.
In 2016, George Defteros, a Victoria state lawyer whose past client list included individuals implicated in Melbourne's notorious gangland killings, contacted Google to ask the company to remove a 2004 article from The Age. The piece featured reporting on murder charges prosecutors filed against Defteros related to the death of three men. Those charges were later dropped in 2005. The company refused to remove the article from its search results as it viewed the publication as a reputable source.
The matter eventually went to court with Defteros successfully arguing the article and Google’s search results had defamed him. The judge who oversaw the case ruled The Age’s reporting had implied Defteros had been cozy with Melbourne’s criminal underground. The Victorian Court of Appeals subsequently rejected a bid by Google to overturn the ruling.
From Google’s perspective, at issue here is one of the fundamental building blocks of the internet. “A hyperlink is not, in and of itself, the communication of that to which it links,” the company contends in its submission to the High Court. If the 2020 judgment is left to stand, Google claims it will make it “liable as the publisher of any matter published on the web to which its search results provide a hyperlink,” including news stories that come from reputable sources. In its defense, the company points to a 2011 ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada that held a hyperlink by itself is never a publication of defamatory material.
We’ve reached out to Google for comment.