Australia: No hits in High Court search for Google liability for its advertisers' representations

Last Updated: 9 February 2013
Article by Michael Corrigan

Google's publication of misleading advertisements by its AdWords customers did not mean that Google itself had breached section 52 of the Trade Practices Act and engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct, according to the High Court this morning (Google Inc v The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission [2013] HCA 1).

The decision is an important one, both for advertisers generally and particularly for online platform providers who allow others to create content on their sites.

Google search results, paid advertisements and its Ad Words program

In response to a query, Google produces search results (called "organic" results) which are generated by its search algorithm. Alongside these results it displays paid advertisements, called "sponsored links", which appear in response to specified search terms.

Advertisers devise the text of the sponsored links and the websites to which their advertisements will link. They also specify the search terms, known as "keywords", which will trigger the appearance of their advertisements . They can also direct Google to insert those keywords into their advertisements. This is managed by Google's AdWords program. Google staff can and do provide a list of common keywords from which advertisers may select.

Google's terms of service specify that their advertisers cannot misleadingly represent an association with unrelated third parties or infringe third party trade marks.

Some advertisers selected keywords containing their competitors' names. For example, a search for Harvey Norman Travel generated an advertisement by STA Travel, which would have the search name (ie. Harvey Norman Travel) as its first line. The Federal Court had no trouble finding this was misleading and deceptive conduct, and breached section 52 of the Trade Practices Act. The question was whether Google has also breached the Act.

Why Google won

The majority of the High Court said that an intermediary or agent who publishes, communicates or passes on someone else's misleading representation will itself be engaging in misleading or deceptive conduct if it would appear to ordinary and reasonable members of the relevant class that the intermediary has adopted or endorsed that representation. This is a question of fact to be decided by reference to all the circumstances of a particular case.

The ACCC said that Google and its search engine do not operate analogously to other intermediaries or agents, and these principles do not apply.

The High Court disagreed:

" each relevant aspect of a sponsored link is determined by the advertiser. The automated response which the Google search engine makes to a user's search request by displaying a sponsored link is wholly determined by the keywords and other content of the sponsored link which the advertiser has chosen. Google does not create, in any authorial sense, the sponsored links that it publishes or displays...That the display of sponsored links (together with organic search results) can be described as Google's response to a user's request for information does not render Google the maker, author, creator or originator of the information in a sponsored link. The technology which lies behind the display of a sponsored link merely assembles information provided by others for the purpose of displaying advertisements directed to users of the Google search engine in their capacity as consumers of products and services. In this sense, Google is not relevantly different from other intermediaries, such as newspaper publishers (whether in print or online) or broadcasters (whether radio, television or online), who publish, display or broadcast the advertisements of others. The fact that the provision of information via the internet will – because of the nature of the internet – necessarily involve a response to a request made by an internet user does not, without more, disturb the analogy between Google and other intermediaries. To the extent that it displays sponsored links, the Google search engine is only a means of communication between advertisers and consumers. "

Furthermore, the ordinary and reasonable user would understand that Google was displaying other people's advertisements, as they were marked as "sponsored links".

What if Google had endorsed or adopted the advertisement and its representations?

The Act provides a statutory defence for a publisher which publishes a third party advertisement in the ordinary course of business where the publisher does not know (or have reason to suspect) that the advertisement would contravene the Act.

As the High Court found that Google did not itself adopt the misleading statements, the High Court did not need to consider this defence. However, it did point out that:

"an intermediary publisher who has endorsed or adopted a published representation of an advertiser without appreciating the capacity of that representation to mislead or deceive may have resort to the statutory defence. In those circumstances, recognising that its business carried a risk of unwitting contravention, an intermediary publisher may need to show that it had some appropriate system in place to succeed in the defence that it did not know and had no reason to suspect that the publication of that representation would amount to a contravention. " [emphasis added]

What does this mean for advertisers?

For advertising in general, this is a useful reassertion of the need to comply with the law when creating advertisements, wherever they appear. An advertiser would ordinarily have thought twice about creating a newspaper advertisement with a competitor's name or trade mark across the top and their own copy beneath. The Google decision shows that the same level of caution should be applied to online activities.

This does not mean however that you can never use a competitor's name or trade mark. Comparative advertising is certainly lawful. That is not, however, what was occurring here. Mere use of the name or trade mark, with no comparison or other connection, may well lead to a breach of the law, whether online or not.

What does this mean for online activities?

Given the high level of automation used in creating online content, and the growth of content generated by users and third parties, any decision will be useful. The Google decision in particular suggests that:

  • the general, long-established principles regarding intermediaries and agents under the Competition and Consumer Act (as the Trade Practices Act is now known) will apply to misleading and deceptive representations;
  • it will be harder for regulators to hold Google and other search engine providers accountable for misleading and deceptive advertisements displayed on their search results pages; and
  • where the content is wholly in the hands of another, the platform provider is more likely to avoid liability.

The situation may well have been different, however, if the advertiser had been able to ask Google to alter the search algorithm itself. Google then might have been considered to be making the representation.

Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this bulletin. Persons listed may not be admitted in all states and territories.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Mondaq Advice Centre (MACs)
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.