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A doctor is suing Google Australia over negative reviews calling him 'incompetent' and a 'fraud' – but the tech giant says the criticism is fair game

James Hennessy
  • A doctor is suing Google over negative reviews posted on the company's reviews platform which called him 'incompetent' and a 'fraud', the ABC reports.
  • In court documents filed on Friday, Google argues the plaintiff's "extravagant" approach to marketing his services invites "robust criticism" – which the company provides a platform for.
  • The case has implications for other tech companies operating in Australia, and their obligations to police and remove potentially defamatory content on their platforms.

A doctor is suing Google for defamation over claims that negative reviews hosted on the company's reviews platform led to a "substantial" decline in visitors to his website. But in their submission to the NSW Supreme Court, Google argues that the "robust public criticism" of the man was valid, according to a report in the ABC.

The doctor, whose identity has been suppressed, argues the allegedly defamatory reviews caused a decline in business due to the reduction of traffic to his website. His statement of claim says reviews described him as "incompetent" and "a fraud", and alleged that he had "butchered patients".

Google's responding claim, filed Friday, described the man's marketing strategy as "puffery" which promoted his services in "extravagant terms" – which, the company suggests, invites legitimate criticism and review.

"In promoting himself in [this] manner, the plaintiff necessarily invites robust public criticism and review of his services and the quality of his work, and it is reasonable he should be the subject of such criticism," Google's statement reads, according to the ABC.

Additionally, Google argues it is a "subordinate distributor" which could not reasonably have known that hosted material was defamatory.

In July, a judge ordered that Google be considered for a contempt of court charge after the company failed to remove the reviews in question. The company managed to dodge that charge later in July.

Though Google's Australian outfit is the defendant, applications to remove content – like reviews – are handled through the United States.

Several other Australian civil cases recently have touched on the often unclear liability for defamatory comments published on tech platforms and social media.

In July, a NSW woman was ordered to pay $500,000 in damages following a negative review she published on Google. In that case, Google was not held liable for the reviews hosted on its platform.

However, in June, a landmark ruling in the NSW Supreme Court found that media companies could be held liable for defamatory comments posted on their social media pages, like Facebook.

The judgments and cases like these demonstrate how multiple entities are liable for defamation online: the person who posts the comment, publishers that fail to prevent said comments, and the tech companies which host the data.

In the current Google case, the plaintiff has elected to have a jury trial, which will return to court next month.