How hard is it to clear your name on Google?

What do you do if Google links to content about you that is offensive, untrue and causes other people to think less of you? How do you clear your name on Google? A recent court decision in South Australia has clarified the issue, holding that search engines are liable under Australian defamation laws as publishers. 

In a potentially landmark case, plaintiff Dr Janice Duffy has won against Google in the South Australian Supreme Court.
 
Dr Janice Duffy, who represented herself, has vindicated the right to clear one's name with Google under Australian law. At least, for now (the decision is subject to appeal). Source: www.drjaniceduffy.com
Dr Janice Duffy, who represented herself, has vindicated the right to clear one’s name with Google under Australian law. At least, for now (the decision is subject to appeal). Source: www.drjaniceduffy.com

The case involved the question of the extent to which Google is liable as a “publisher” under defamation laws for indexing third party websites containing defamatory content. In this case, Google had refused to remove links to defamatory content on another website, “The Ripoff Report”, even after several requests by Dr Duffy.

Google’s autocomplete function also extracted a derogatory phrase from the defamatory content and suggested it behind Dr Duffy’s name in its search bar.

The fact that the defamatory content was indexed and summarised by Google’s software engine, and not curated by human editors, was immaterial to its legal status as a “publisher”. Once notified of the defamatory material, a search engine must bear the consequences of being a publisher.

The finding of the Supreme Court is in contrast to the position in the United States, where search engines have effective immunity under constitutional law for links to defamatory content produced by third parties.

The complexity of the case, which to date has run for more than six years, arguably points to the need for a simplified dispute resolution process for the removal of content from search engine indexes.

This is a point that Nicolas Suzor, a Senior Lecturer at Queensland University of Technology, agrees with: “More than anything, this case shows that we need better, more legitimate mechanisms for addressing complaints about harmful material online”, writes Suzor in the Sydney Morning Herald.

For us mere mortals, the takeaway from last week’s decision is clear. While difficult, it is possible to take legal action to force Google and other search engines to modify their search results, provided you can show that the relevant content is defamatory.

The case is Duffy v Google Inc [2015] SASC 170 (27 October 2015).

Google may yet appeal the decision to the High Court.

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