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.
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.