Today Google was forced to cough up more than $200,000 in damages to an Australian man who brought his shady search results to court.
Melbourne resident Milorad Trkulja was at a restaurant with his mother in the summer of 2004 when he got shot in the back by an unidentified hitman. The 62-year old music promoter survived the attack—but a Google search showed his online reputation didn’t have the same luck. A run of his name on Google Images bought up a Who’s Who of Melbourne’s Most Wanted, like alleged murderers, drug traffickers, mob bosses—not the type of impression you’d want to make before a first date. Even though the only link Trkulja had to Melbourne’s underworld was being a victim of an unsolved crime, in Google logic, he was showing up in the same places (i.e., local crime news coverage and sites that chronicle gang-related incidents) as these less than savory characters. According to Trkulja, this led people to conclude that he was also a criminal. It did so much damage to his reputation, he said, that one couple refused to sit next to him at a wedding.
After Google didn’t respond to Trkulja’s request to remove the images, the church elder sued the company for defamation. Google argued in court that as a search engine, it was merely disseminating material published by others, not publishing the material itself. As a Google spokesperson put it when I asked for comment, “Google’s search results are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the web. The sites in Google’s search results are controlled by those sites’ webmasters, not by Google.”
But the judges weren’t swayed by this argument and ruled in Trkulja’s favor. Judge David Beach, who presided over the case, didn’t think a search engine like Google is on par with a newspaper with a defamatory story, but instead put it in the same category as a library or a newsagent that sells said newspaper. Such organizations have been held accountable for defamation in Australia in the past.
Others have sued Google for search results before, such as Germany’s former “first lady” Bettina Wulff, who took issue with Autocomplete suggesting the word “prostitute” after her name, and Max Mosley, former Formula One head, who wasn’t happy to see “orgy” included with his results. But Google has typically taken a “hands-tied” approach to personal complaints over search results, changing search results only if legally ordered to do so—like in September, when a Brazilian court ordered the removal of a YouTube video criticizing a mayoral candidate.
According to Trkulja’s lawyers, this is the first time a search engine has been held accountable for defamation in the same way as traditional media, and they think it may lead to search engines responding a lot more swiftly if future complaints are raised. Especially if, like in the case of Trkulja, who as a music promoter depended on his online presence to attract future clients, you can prove that your search results are preventing you from getting a job.
Above the Law’s Christopher Danzig, however, fears that search-results-related defamation suits could diminish Google’s value for consumers, which he reflected on during the Mosley case. “Google is the gatekeeper for the online world we live in. It would be a completely unfeasible system if people could pick and choose, without a specific legal justification, what kinds of results to allow search engines to index. It is for the same reason news outlets will not remove stories just because someone doesn’t approve of the coverage. “
Of course, the irony of suing Google over a marred online reputation is that the barrage of court documents and media attention will end up immortalizing what you were so embarrassed about in the first place.