Naming a reason to sue search engines
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
Googling your name used to be mocked as vanity. Or maybe paranoia. But after some recent court wins by an Australian against two search engine companies, self-Googling may become more popular and interesting.
Milorad (Michael) Trkulja was shot in a Melbourne restaurant in 2004. The crime was never solved although Mr Trkulja was quoted as saying he believes he knows who shot him.
The story was reported in the Herald Sun in Melbourne and scans of the newspaper article were posted on websites about crime in Melbourne.
Those scans popped up, with Mr Trkulja's name and picture, when people searched Yahoo! and Google.
Mr Trkulja, a music promoter, felt so many people were seeing his picture online alongside those of gangland identities that his reputation was suffering.
So he sued Google and Yahoo! for defamation - and won.
The companies argued it was not their fault, they found stuff other people had produced.
But the court put them in the same category as a newsagent that distributed papers and magazines. Such shops could be liable for defamation, so search engines could too.
Until now, search engines have been able to put responsibility for defamatory content on the providers of that content. But cases and judgments are mounting up.
A former first lady of Germany Bettina Wulff sued Google because the words "prostitute" and "escort" used to appear as suggestions next to her name on searches.
And a Japanese man won an action against Google because the "auto-complete" feature linked his name to crimes he did not commit.
After the Trkulja case, I did a search for my name.
I don't think I can sue Google on the basis that people might think I'm the racing car champ Greg Ray, or a comedian of the same name.
But when an image search produces mug shots of criminals with the same name I might be getting warmer.
So, how will this affect the internet? Will real crooks be able to scare search engines into deleting references to them? Would that be a good thing?
And will it go further than defamation?
In the past, newsagencies have been found liable for distributing offensive material such as illegal pornography.
Would search engines be liable if they directed people to websites containing illegal material? It seems to me that either the law or the internet will have to change.