It is well established under Australia law that secondary
publishers can be held liable for defamatory material if they had
actual or constructive knowledge of the defamatory matter. This was
the crux of Dr Janice Duffy's multi-year legal battle in the
Supreme Court of South Australia with internet search giant,
The situation began in 2007, when defamatory material was
published about Dr Duffy on the popular website Ripoff Report.
Material on this website, which allows users to post complaints
about companies and individuals, connected Dr Duffy with a range of
harmful accusations, all of which Dr Duffy said were unfounded. It
is thought that these accusations were a form of retaliation
against Dr Duffy after she posted negative comments about Psychics
on the same website.
Ripoff Report articles tend to achieve a high ranking in Google
search results. This was especially true for Dr Duffy who, in 2009,
asked Google to remove the relevant Ripoff Report URLs from its
search results. This request was initially ignored, and action to
remove the URL was only taken by Google in November 2011, months
after Dr Duffy filed her lawsuit.
Soon after contacting Google, Dr Duffy also noticed that Google
had developed an auto-link when searching her name, linking her
name to the words 'Psychic Stalker'. Dr Duffy made a
further request to have this auto-link removed, however once again
her complaints were ignored.
In 2011 Duffy filed a lawsuit against Google alleging
defamation, claiming she suffered both financial and psychological
damage as a result of the defamatory material. Google disclaimed
liability on the basis that they did not publish the relevant
In his 144-page decision released on October 27th
2015, Justice Blue noted that it is "well established" in
Australia and indeed globally that search engine operators such as
Google are recognised secondary publishers. In this way, if Google
had knowledge of the defamatory matter and failed to remove it,
they could be found liable for defamation as a secondary
Google was ultimately found liable for defamation. In his
decision, Justice Blue reasoned that Google was clearly aware of
the defamatory content after receiving Dr Duffy's messages
requesting its removal. As such, the 'continuing existence'
of the material on the Google search engine was the 'direct
result of human action or inaction'. Google was ordered to pay
$115,000 (AUD) in damages and interest to Dr Duffy.
Dr Duffy's lawsuit was yet another significant blow for the
search engine giant. Since 2006, Google has faced a range of
defamation cases both within Australia and globally. In 2009 a
Victorian music promotor successfully sued Google for $200,000
after Google search results linked him with several crime figures,
thus gravely damaging his reputation. In addition, a French
insurance company was awarded $65,000 in damages in 2013 after the
search engine auto-linked the companies name with the word
Lesson for Business
The lesson for any business with a web profile is that on line
defamation is a real and material issue. Constant vigilance is
required to ensure that your on-line presence is not affected by
the direct or indirect publication of defamatory material. A
business can be held liable whether they are the primary publisher
of the material, or a secondary publisher who just allows someone
else's material to remain 'alive' on their website or
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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