High Court clears way for search engine defamation case

13 June 2018

High Court clears way for search engine defamation case

Search engines may be liable for defamation if search results suggest false information about a person, the High Court ruled on Wednesday.

In 2016 the Victorian Court of Appeal dismissed Milorad Trkulja’s claim that Google had defamed him by displaying photographs of him when searches were made for phrases such as “Melbourne underworld crime”, as well as by displaying text and autocomplete predictions with similar suggestions.

On Wednesday, the High Court of Australia unanimously allowed an appeal from that decision.

Mr Trkulja argued that the search results conveyed that he was a “hardened and serious criminal” and “such a significant figure in the Melbourne criminal underworld that events involving him are recorded on a website that chronicles crime.”

The Supreme Court of Victoria had previously given the green light to the case in 2015, when Justice McDonald rejected Google’s argument that Mr Trkulja’s claims had no real prospect of success.

Google appealed that determination, and it was reversed by the Victorian Court of Appeal, which accepted Google’s argument that the search results were not defamatory on the basis that they were not capable of bearing the defamatory imputations Mr Trkulja claimed and therefore had no real prospect of success.

Mr Trkulja then appealed to the High Court, which disagreed with the Victorian Court of Appeal and allowed the appeal.

The matter will now return to the Supreme Court of Victoria, where it began, for full determination.