Google loses Australia 'gangland' defamation lawsuit
- 31 October 2012
- From the section Technology
A jury in Australia has found Google liable for damages after a complaint that its search results had linked a local man to gangland crime.
Milorad Trkulja had alleged that the US firm's image and web results had caused harm to his reputation.
The 62-year-old had said the site had refused to remove the material when asked. He had previously won a related case against Yahoo.
Google has not commented on the verdict and might still appeal.
The judge is expected to set the level of damages owed within a fortnight.
Mr Trkulja moved to Australia in the early 1970s after leaving Yugoslavia. He subsequently became a prominent member of the migrant community, hosting the Yugoslav-themed "Micky's Folkfest" television show in the 1990s.
In 2004 he was shot in the back by a man wearing a balaclava while at a restaurant. The crime was never solved, but a report by the Herald Sun newspaper later said that police did not link the attack to Melbourne's underworld.
As a result of the attack Mr Trkulja said that entering his name into Google Images brought up images of other people beneath which his name appeared.
He said some of these figures were allegedly murderers and one a drug trafficker. In addition the caption "Melbourne Crime" appeared beneath several of the photos, including one of Mr Trkulja himself, which he had alleged might lead users to believe he was a criminal.
"Melbourne Crime", in fact, referred to the source of the images - a now defunct website going by that name.
Mr Trkulja had also complained that the first result brought up by a web search of his name showed the words "Michael Trkulja - Melbourne Crime - Underworld - Ganglands", beneath which appeared the sentence: "Former music promoter Michael Trkulja was shot in the back by a hitman wearing a balaclava while dining at a St Albans restaurant in June 2004."
He said this created a "false innuendo" suggesting he had been involved in crime and his rivals had hired a hitman to murder him.
He added that couples had refused to sit at the same table as him at a wedding as a consequence, and that others had deliberately avoided him in public.
In 2009 Mr Trkulja's lawyers contacted Google to ask it to amend its results, and subsequently filed a lawsuit.
Google argued that its results had been based on automated software processes and that, since it was not a publisher itself, put forward the defence of "innocent dissemination".
The jury at the Supreme Court of Victoria agreed that this was a reasonable argument, but only up to the point that Google had received the complaint about its picture results.
It indicated that the content should have been removed at that point, and as a result the search firm was liable for defamation.
However, 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.
Mr Trkulja later told journalists he felt vindicated by the ruling.
"I've lived in Australia 41 years," he told News Limited Network. "This case is not about the money, it's about protecting my family, my children and my reputation."
Mr Trkulja had previously won a lawsuit against Yahoo after its Yahoo7 news service had also linked to a defamatory content on the Melbourne Crime site.
Yahoo's lawyers acknowledged that this amounted to "publishing" the content and was subsequently ordered to pay more than A$241,000 ($250,000; £155,000) in damages.
The verdicts follow another ruling in Japan in which the Google was ordered to disable part of its auto-complete function after allegations it linked a local man to crimes he was not involved in.
The firm also faces legal action by Bettina Wulff, wife of the former German president, over complaints that typing her name into its engine brings up the suggested search terms "prostitute" and "red light district".