Australia's top court rules Google isn't a publisher

The company could have been held liable for linking to defamatory websites.

REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Google has prevailed in its long-running battle over potentially defamatory web links. Australia's High Court has ruled Google wasn't the publisher of a link to a 2004 story in The Age that allegedly tarnished state lawyer George Defteros, who represented people implicated in the Melbourne gangland killings and briefly faced charges himself. As The Guardian reports, five of seven court justices found that the search result link "merely facilitated access" to the story — Google didn't play a part in writing or distributing the content.

The High Court also rebuffed Defteros' claim that search results encouraged users to visit a story. Someone who found that link was already searching for relevant content, the justices said. Some of the justices said the case might have been different if it had been a sponsored link, but that Google's appeal didn't require an answer on the subject.

Defteros sued Google in 2016, accusing the company of defaming him. Google pulled the link in December that year, and lost its initial court fight, but tried to overturn the ruling by arguing that it could have been held liable for the content of any page it linked to — it was worried it would have to "act as censor" for the internet at large. The company didn't succeed with that first appeal, and in 2020 a Victorian supreme court ordered that Defteros receive $40,000 in damages. Google asked the High Court to intervene in January.

The decision could a wide-ranging impact on internet firms operating in Australia. They might not have to worry that search queries or other automatically-generated links could get them into legal trouble. A complainant would have to show there was a deliberate attempt to promote an unflattering piece.