Google is a 'publisher' says Aussie court as it hands £20k damages to gangland lawyer

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An Australian court has declared that Google is a "publisher" and awarded an aggrieved lawyer £20,000 after searches on his name returned criminal allegations from his past.

Today the Australian state of Victoria's highest court ruled that Google was legally liable for publishing an excerpt from a 2004 report in its search results pages.

George Defteros, described as having represented numerous gangland figures in criminal trials, sued the adtech monolith in the Victoria Supreme Court. Google searches for his name returned a news story by local newspaper The Age, reporting that in 2004 he had been charged with conspiracy to murder.

The charges were dropped in 2005 and an exonerated Defteros continued his legal career.

Supreme court judge Melinda Richards "ruled that the article, first published in the Age in 2004, had implied that Defteros crossed a line from professional lawyer for, to confidant and friend of, criminal elements," according to the Australian Associated Press.

Defteros was said to have been aware of the article "since at least 2007." A preliminary ruling in the same case revealed that he "notified Google of the publication of the web matter on 4 February 2016," arguing that Google's liability kicked in "a reasonable time after notification." Local judges appear to have agreed with this line of argument.

The full judgment was not immediately available from the court itself or the Austlii online library of the commonwealth's judgments.

Reports of today's ruling did not state whether Defteros had sued The Age itself; however, he reportedly previously won AU$20,000 (~£10,000) after suing author John Silvester and colleague Andrew Rule over a chapter of a book based on the article.

Google has had a torrid time while claiming not to be responsible for search results on its webpages. Earlier this month, French authorities told it to start paying news organisations for publishing snippets of stories, on the grounds that Google's practices were “likely to constitute an abuse of a dominant position.”

Back Down Under, the Aussie federal government made a similar demand – and went one step further by asking Google to also reveal details of its search ranking algorithms, the company's secret sauce. That echoes a recent London High Court ruling telling the American firm to either withdraw key evidence from a lawsuit or let an SEO expert read those same algorithms.

In 2018 the adtech company won a partial victory in a lawsuit brought jointly by two convicted criminals who wanted their pasts scrubbed from Google search results. ®

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