Skip to main content

Defamation lawsuits and the danger to Google

It was only a matter of time before Google got called out for defamation in court. An Australian man named Michael Trkulja successfully sued Google last week after image searches of a criminal by the name of "Antonios 'Tony' Sajih Mokbel" yielded photos of Trkulja.

You commonly see such weirdness and misinformation when conducting a Google image search due to its secret search algorithms. That is to be expected. The problem here, though, is the fact that, despite complaints, Google hardly did anything to correct the problem.

Now, this may or may not open the floodgates to all sorts of lawsuits against Google for providing what are clearly careless search results. Google will either have to pay off the complainants or fix the problem. Reports suggest that Google does have a process to deal with the situation, but in the case of Michael Trkulja, something went astray.

Let's back up on this whole issue. Can someone explain to me how Google can do away with thousands upon thousands of YouTube videos after receiving random and sketchy takedown orders, but do absolutely nothing about removing this man's photos from a search for someone completely different? Is it impossible?

The YouTube takedowns, by the way, show that Google not only does things at the drop of a hat, but also that it is very liberal in doing so. This would indicate a depraved indifference when it comes to Michael Trkulja. Why doesn't he get the same consideration as Viacom or even anonymous complainers?

Of course, the YouTube takedown is easy and the Michael Trkulja affair would be more complex. Google, however, could easily hire someone to hand-tweak pages, as it's been known to do in other cases. And why wouldn't it? The company does over $47 billion (£29 billion) in business with profits of $24 billion (£15 billion) and has $44 billion (£27 billion) in the bank. Surely it can afford to do so.

People can argue about this case of libel, but it is no laughing matter when it costs someone a job or possibly his or her life, if someone puts a hit on a misidentified criminal.

Google the term "worst gangster." George Clooney comes up in that search. In fact, that search produces false hits galore. Compare that to the search for "wanted criminal." Using the word "criminal" in association with someone who is not a criminal is a slam dunk in a libel suit. Writers are also cautioned against the word "crook," unless someone has been found guilty of a crime.

And except for a joke picture of a baby and another of George Bush, the resulting pages are packed with pictures of those either imprisoned or wanted by the authorities. On page 37 of the images, Taylor Swift shows up, along with Red Riding Hood and other imprecise results.

If Google cannot win the Michael Trkulja case on appeal – it is in Australia, after all – it will open the floodgates, using the Michael Trkulja case as precedent. Bing is also susceptible to this sort of legal action. In fact, Michael Trkulja had already sued and won a similar case against Yahoo, which is powered by Bing.

When search engine companies that make billions upon billions of dollars become part of the fabric of society, this sort of thing is bound to happen. And with their bank accounts and cash flows, the companies have zero excuse for not fixing a clear problem.