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Google Review

How to Deal With an Unfavourable Google Review

By | General News

When you open your browser to search for the details of a local service, be it a restaurant, a dentist, a tradesperson or a shop, chances are you’ll use Google.

In a world with nearly 4.5 billion internet users, it’s estimated nearly four billion of them regularly use Google as their default search engine. ‘The power of Google’ has become a phrase revealing how influential the search engine started in 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin has become.

That power has become so great it can make or break a business. Specifically, the capacity for users to post ‘reviews’ on the Google pages of businesses has become an increasingly contentious aspect of the search engine, with a growing list of legal cases brought by businesses who receive negative reviews.

These reviews are usually posted anonymously and can have a terrible and immediate effect on a business’ reputation and revenue, such is the reach of Google.

If your business receives a bad review like this, what can you do? Read on…

What action can you take?

The most common legal action taken by businesses adversely affected by a negative Google review lies in defamation. Where the bad review has, in the eyes of the business, damaged its reputation among the wider public and exposed it to hatred, contempt or ridicule, the publication of the review may be characterised as defamatory. Actions for defamation because of material published online is a growing phenomenon.

Not everyone is able to make a claim for defamation. If you are a company, you can only bring an action for defamation if you are a not-for-profit company or one with less than 10 employees. A director or officer of a company may also be able to take action for defamation if they are identified with sufficient certainty in the publication which allegedly carries the defamatory imputations.

A review can still be defamatory even where it does not specifically name a person or business. If the person or business is identifiable in the description in the review – ‘the burger place on Hayes Street’, for example – then the action can be maintained. Additionally, reference to a class of people such as ‘Everyone working at the takeaway shop on Hayes St…’ may also be defamatory.

Some examples…

Recent examples from the Australian courts are illustrative of the action a person or business can take if they receive a bad Google review.

Early in 2020 Adelaide lawyer Gordon Cheng was awarded $750,000 in a defamation payout after taking action against a woman, Isabel Lok, who posted a negative review about his firm on Google. Cheng estimated his firm had lost 80% of its clients after the bad review and his accountant said the dollar value damage to his practice was $296,146.

It emerged in court that Lok, who gave Cheng’s firm a one-star review accompanied by a negative description, had never been a client of Cheng’s and that she changed the name on the review a number of times. She even posted two more negative reviews after Google removed the original review.

Shortly after Melbourne dentist Matthew Kabbabe took Google to the Federal Court in order to force the company to identify a person who anonymously posted a bad review about his practice on his Google business page. Google had refused to either take down the review or reveal the identify of the poster, ‘CBsm 23’. Kabbabe wished to know their identity so he could potentially launch an action for defamation against the person.

The Federal Court justice made an order compelling Google to turn over any identifying information of  the reviewer, including names, phone numbers, IP addresses, location metadata, and any other information about the person’s Google accounts.

After the judgement, Kabbabe’s lawyer suggested a class action of small business owners against Google might be forthcoming to deal with the issue of potentially defamatory reviews which Google either does not monitor or does not remove once brought to its attention.

Is suing Google an option?

International social media platforms such as Google and Facebook have strenuously argued for a number of years now that they are not ‘publishers’ but merely platforms hosting other people’s content.

But a number of court cases have found this defence is not sustainable. Melbourne lawyer George Defteros won $40,000 in damages from Google in an April 2020 case after he successfully argued that Google was a publisher and had defamed him because it was responsible for the fact Google searches on his name linked it to that of Melbourne gangland figures. “The Google search engine … is not a passive tool,” wrote Justice Richards in her judgement.

Difficulties arise if the defamatory material has an international dimension given a review can be authored from anywhere in the world and hosted on a platform based in the USA or elsewhere. In this case the fact the review can be accessed and read in Australia may determine whether an Australian court has jurisdiction to find its imputations defamatory of an Australian person or company.

Changes to Australia’s defamation laws

The changing publishing landscape caused by the likes of Google and Facebook, among other reasons, has highlighted the need for Australia’s defamation laws to be updated.

This realisation led to the Model Defamation Law Working Party as part of the Australian Council of Attorneys-General, which took submissions from media companies, peak legal bodies, academics, digital platforms and the public.

The first stage of this process led to Model Defamation Amendment Provisions which NSW became the first state to enact into law when the Defamation Amendment Bill was passed in August 2020 to amend the Defamation Act 2005 and the Limitation Act 1969.

Among other changes, the amendments require an aggrieved person to issue a ‘Concerns Notice’ to a publisher before they can commence defamation proceedings against them. Once this notice is issued, the publisher now also has an extended period within which to make amends (previously capped at 28 days) if further particulars for the notice have been requested.

The changes also introduced a ‘serious harm’ provision, meaning a plaintiff must prove that the defamatory publication has caused, or is likely to cause, serious harm to the plaintiff’s reputation. Where the plaintiff is an excluded corporation, it must also show that the publication has caused, or is likely to cause, serious financial loss.

The reforms to Australia’s defamation laws have not concluded. A second stage is due in 2021 which is expected to provide more detail on the liability of digital platform providers such as Google for the material it publishes, including third-party comments on the platform.

Speak with Felicio

If you have been the subject of a negative comment or review of your business or yourself, whether anonymous or otherwise, give us a call today to discuss your options.

At Felicio Law Firm, it’s our job to be across the latest developments in the law so that we can provide timely and relevant advice on what you can do if you feel your reputation, and the revenue of your business, has been harmed by a review on a Google business page.

Contact our friendly team today on (02) 4365 4249.

Felicio Law

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Using Online Templates for Legal Documents

By | General News

Whether it’s making a will, signing a contract, a lease or a hire purchase document, or filling in employment documents, in this digital age a lot of essential legal paperwork is available as an online template.

It’s understandable why many formerly paper-based legal forms have moved to an online format. As much of the population gains internet access, legal documents available as an online template are easily accessible, time and money-saving, trackable and capable of being encrypted for additional security and privacy.

There has been significant growth in the number of websites and services offering legal forms, documents and templates for a flat or monthly fee. In return for answering some questions and providing other information – such as the names of the parties to a contract – the site creates a legally valid document for you.

But online legal forms also have some drawbacks which may impact on their validity if a legal issue or dispute arises. These include the possibility of outdated or incorrect forms being left online, the inability to customise the form for the user’s purposes, and security and privacy concerns.

This article outlines the various advantages and disadvantages in using an online template when making a legally enforceable document, but if in doubt you should consult experienced solicitors such as the team at Felicio Law Firm who can ensure that filling out an online template is done in a way that prevents the likelihood of it later being disputed, thereby protecting your essential interests.

The advantages of online templates…

The ease and speed of filling out a legal document at your laptop or home computer is obvious. It saves time and, in most cases, avoids the need of paying for professional advice. The portability of such documents means you can access them from multiple devices in any place.

Standard legal documents such as tenancy agreements, basic contracts, product warranties and hire purchase agreements are these days all made readily available as online templates.

For small businesses or sole traders, providing such forms regarding basic terms and conditions is a cheaper, simpler way to create official legal documents with clients and suppliers.

In some cases, online templates can also be customisable so that you can create a more bespoke legal document, such as in the case of a do-it-yourself will.

Encryption technology such as digital signatures ostensibly also provide the necessary security and privacy in a world where identity theft and cyber-crime are real and present threats.

…and the disadvantages

Many of the recognised benefits of online legal document templates also have an unfortunate downside.

Businesses and organisations who offer an online template for key legal documents may grow and evolve so that the digital form is no longer suitable or relevant for the purpose for which it was designed. In many situations, forms are uploaded and then forgotten about, so that their essential terms and conditions become out-of-date or invalid, despite users continuing to use the form.

Commonly, it’s the rigidity and inflexibility of an online template that becomes the problem. Legal documents often need to be made ‘bespoke’ – personalised to reflect the needs and conditions of both path parties to a contract. This is not always possible when using an online template.

Documents setting out contractual terms and conditions, shareholders’ agreements, employment agreements and data protection policies are often lengthy documents not suited to the format of an online template and also requiring sections that need to be customised to pre-empt and avoid the possibility of later disputes.

Subscription-type sites offering legal templates may also – usually in the small print – disclaim the idea that they are providing legally enforceable documents. This may mean the form you’re using may later be shown to be invalid or unenforceable. People also often accept overly restrictive or incorrect terms because they did not read disclaimers accompanying online forms, or could not find them via the site’s navigation.

Finally, the fear that the site hosting the online template is not secure is real. In many cases both the organisation providing the online form, and the user of the form, are not as technologically savvy as people acting nefariously to steal personal and other details from online transactions. Even sites that profess to be entirely secure, may not be.

Why legal advice is a smart option

While online templates are often a good option for simple, standard and straightforward legal forms, such as lease documents, you should still seek legal advice when it comes to more complex contractual forms.

Relying on a form filled out via an online template can be problematic if there’s a later dispute about whether the terms have been breached. In the worst-case scenario, you could lose money or be forced to pay damages if the document is not enforceable.

Experienced solicitors such as Felicio Law Firm take the time to understand you and the needs of your business so that we help you create personalised legal documents to meet your requirements both now and into the future. By taking on expert legal advice, you can also avoid accepting unsuitable terms when using online legal forms. There is no substitute for a properly drafted, enforceable legal document.

If this article raises any questions or concerns, contact Felicio Law Firm today on (02) 4365 4249.