Google Responsible For Other Peoples’ Lies, Deems Australian Court

Google is now legally responsible for every crazy thing on the Internet–at least, in Australia. The Supreme Court of Victoria fined Google $200,000 for not removing defamatory rumors linking music promoter, Milorad Trkulja, to organized crime. The court reasoned that Google is a “publisher” because it displays content and links to offending websites.

“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,” wrote the company, in a diplomatically worded statement in response to the decision.

In October 2009, Trkulja demanded that Google remove the rumors, including images, but the company denied the request and recommended he contact the website owners. The court ruled that Google’s innocence is only justifiable until the point when someone asks them to remove content. The court reasoned:

The plaintiff accepted (correctly in my view) that he had to establish that Google Inc intended to publish the material complained of. While much was made by counsel for Google Inc of the fact that there was no human intervention between the request made to the search engine and the publication of search results, and of the fact that the system was “fully automated”, the plaintiff’s point was that Google Inc intended to publish everything Google’s automated systems (which systems its employees created and allowed to operate) produced. Specifically, the plaintiff contended that Google Inc intended to publish the material complained of because while the systems were automated, those systems were the consequence of computer programs, written by human beings, which programs were doing exactly what Google Inc and its employees intended and required. On this basis, it was contended that each time the material complained of was downloaded and comprehended, there was a publication by Google Inc (the operator and owner of the relevant search engines), as intended by it.

While the moral implications of the court’s decision are certainly up for debate, the logistical fallout of such a decision is, to put it mildly, mind-boggling. There are a lot of crazy, mean, and ill-informed people, and they increasingly have access to the Internet. Verifying whether a rumor of, say, the death of a celebrity is true or not is relatively straightforward.

But, the anti-Islamic video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” which sparked fatally violent protests in the Middle East, is wrapped up in a heated legal debate about whether its author should be culpable for his actions. And in France, for instance, individuals face heavy fines for hate speech.

If Google is legally responsible for all of the Internet’s content, in the same way that authors are responsible, it’s hard to imagine how any search engine could exist.