On 30 April 2020 the Supreme Court of Victoria ordered Google Inc. to pay $40,000 in defamation damages to Mr Defteros. The Court found that Google Inc. was a publisher of search results and had defamed the lawyer.
George Defteros is a Melbourne solicitor who specialises in the practice of criminal law. A number of men who became notorious during Melbourne’s ‘gangland wars’ were clients, including Mario Condello.
During 2004, Mr Defteros and Mr Condello were charged with conspiracy to murder and incitement to murder Carl Williams, his father George Williams, and Carl Williams’ bodyguard. The charges against Mr Defteros were withdrawn a year later. Mr Condello was murdered the day before he was due to stand trial. There was wide coverage on Melbourne’s ‘gangland killings’ published in various forums.
Mr Defteros surrendered his practising certificate on 20 June 2004, and did not practise law for more than three years. By 2014 he had re-established a successful legal practice.
Mr Defteros originally had a case against both Google Australia and Google Inc. Mr Defteros had claimed Google Australia’s advertisements facilitated Google Inc.’s operations in Australia. He argued that Google Australia was participating in the search engine function and should also be considered to be a publisher for the purposes of defamation law. The judge disagreed and ruled that Google Australia played no role in the publication of the defamatory articles. The court found that Google Australia had no control over the search engine operated by Google Inc. The case against Google Australia was dismissed.
Mr Defteros continued with two proceedings against Google Inc. The first commenced in 2016. He then located another four articles about him on the world wide web and commenced a second proceeding in 2017. The Court found against Google Inc. in regards to the 2016 proceeding and dismissed the 2017 proceeding.
A Wikipedia article and two articles published in The Age in 2004, together with two images of Mr Defteros, were the subject of the proceedings.
Google Inc. argued it was not the publisher of the material and it had not defamed Mr Defteros. They submitted it was not an intentional communicator of words or images because their search engines were automated. They argued that this was especially so when a user clicked through to another website.
Justice Richards rejected this argument and found the search engine was not a “passive tool”. She found that the search engine allowed for human intervention. The search engine can identify objectionable content from the search results displayed to a user. This content can then be removed by human intervention.
“I find that Google becomes a publisher of the search results that its search engine returns to a user who enters a search query.” She also found that providing a hyperlink within the search results “amounted to publication of the webpage”.
Only one of The Age articles was found to be defamatory. This meant it was possible that an ordinary reasonable reader could think Mr Defteros had crossed the line from being a professional to being a confidant and friend of criminals. Her Honour found that no defamatory imputations arose from the publication of the images. This was due to it being unlikely that the ordinary reasonable reader would have thought Mr Defteros was a criminal associate. A reader would probably think he was their legal representative.
Her Honour found that the Wikipedia page did defame Mr Defteros. However, her Honour also found that Google was entitled to rely on the statutory defence of triviality. This was because the people who gave evidence regarding the page had only accessed it because they were working on the 2017 proceeding. It was also noted, and conceded by Mr Defteros, that Wikipedia pages could be edited by any user.