What does Google defamation suit mean for the future of search?

Recently I wrote about my concerns over comments posted on the web and how many online publishers are putting themselves at risk by allowing readers to post accusations about others online without evidence to support them.  In WWW – The Wild West Web I talk about the defamation laws and how many publishers, let alone those posting the comments – don’t understand them.

Now there is legal precedent, thanks to a case in Australia. Milorad Trkulja had alleged that the US firm’s image and web results had caused harm to his reputation.  The court found in Mr. Trkulja’s favour that a picture contained in its web search created a false innuendo but the jury found that Google was not liable for the web search results since Mr Trkulja had incorrectly filled out a complaint form, missing out the web address of the content to which he had objected.

Google may yet appeal the verdict, but if the ruling stands it opens up the flood gates for others to bring suits against publishers and search engines who publish information about both individuals and businesses that cannot meet the requisite legal burden of proof.

Despite the not-guilty verdict on the search complaint the case, Mr. Trkulja’s suit will fundamental change in online comment policies as well as online  news sites, blogs and chatrooms:

  • It will bring an end to anonymous posters
  • Expect tighter regulations that require publishers and search engines to provide user data in defamation suits
  • It will require online publications to moderate the comments added to their sites much more carefully
  • Search engines will need to be much more careful about the content they present.  Repeating a defamation makes you as liable as the person who originally broadcast it!
  • Significant changes to the way in which search engines collect and present results will be needed – websites will come under much closer scrutiny from search engine companies to demonstrate they have strict moderation policies
  • Websites will see changes to the terms and conditions used by search engines and a review of indemnity policies [Ignorance isn’t a defence against defamation, so claiming that you didn’t know the claims were inaccurate won’t help you].
  • I expect that search engines will make website owners liable for any losses they incur as a result of defamation cases
  • We will see a huge increase in defamation suits by individuals and businesses against online publishers and search engine companies.  In reality, if the defamation is published then the suit will go after the organization with the deepest pockets

I’ll write more about this in the coming days, but it’s worth remembering that in law there are only three defences against a defamation suit:

  1. It is the truth
  2. Prejudice and Malice [there are some jurisdictions, like the UK Houses of Parliament that are not bound by defamation laws]
  3. It is in the public interest that people are made aware of something – even if the statement is untrue.

You have been warned!