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Australia's top court says Google's iffy ads do not mislead

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Australia's High Court, the nation's ultimate tribunal from which no appeal is possible, has overturned lower courts' decisions that found Google misled and deceived users.

At issue in the case was whether Google is responsible for the words and links its advertisers choose. The case arose after an online classifieds site bought ads that appeared when users searched for two car dealers. The ads mentioned those dealers, but instead linked to the classifieds site. No information was provided that would give users any reason to suspect the ads would direct them to the classifieds site, and the site had no information about the dealers.

Australia's Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) felt such ads were “misleading and deceptive”, a phrase that rings loud alarm bells under Australian law, and took Google and the classifieds site to court. After an early loss, the ACCC won in Australia's Federal Court and the classifieds site was slapped. But Google appealed, as it was not keen to vet the many ads it receives every day .

The High Court has now delivered Google the result it wanted, with the summary of the judgement (the full judgement was not available at the time of writing) offering this analysis:

“Google did not create the sponsored links that it published or displayed. Ordinary and reasonable users of the Google search engine would have understood that the representations conveyed by the sponsored links were those of the advertisers, and would not have concluded that Google adopted or endorsed the representations. Accordingly, Google did not engage in conduct that was misleading or deceptive. “

The High Court started hearing the case last September. The arrival of a judgement today is one of the court's speedier turnarounds, a sign of the case's importance.

Google has issued the following statement about the judgement:

“We welcome the High Court’s unanimous decision that Google cannot be held responsible for the ads that advertisers create for Google's search engine."

The ACCC is also positive about the decision, with ACCC Chairman Rod Sims saying in a statement that “The ACCC took these proceedings to clarify the law relating to advertising practices in the internet age. Specifically, we considered that providers of online content should be accountable for misleading or deceptive conduct when they have significant control over what is delivered.”

Sims goes on to point out the court did find the ads misleading.

“The High Court’s decision focused only on Google’s conduct. In the facts and circumstances of this case the High Court has determined that Google did not itself engage in misleading or deceptive conduct,” Sims said.

Early analysis of the judgement from the Australian Copyright Council suggests it "highlights the need for an alternative response to intermediary liability issues." The Council's analysis mentions the case of Australian ISP iiNet, which was challenged in court by the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft after doing little in response to notifications its users were infringing copyright. iiNet was held by the High Court not have a responsibility to respond to such notices or to monitor its users activities. Big Content responded with calls for amended legislation to shift some responsibility onto intermediaries like ISPs.

The Copyright Council's initial analysis suggests this new case raises similar issues. As we noted yesterday, an election is due in Australia in just a few months and with a full legislative program already tabled, this may be a reform that cannot be dealt with during the life of the current Parliament. ®

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