Google Search, Autocomplete link Australian music promoter to criminal underworld

Occurred: November 2012

Google has been ordered to pay AUD 208,000 to Milorad ('Michael') Trkulja, a 62-year-old man who had accused the company of defaming him with web and image search results that associated him with the criminal underworld. 

Automated guilt

In 2004, Trkulja had been shot in the back at a Sydney restaurant in an unsolved crime involving a balaclava-wearing assailant, after which he had asked Google and Yahoo! to remove content from its search engine and Autocomplete search term prediction function associating him with Australian mafia and criminals, including a well-known drug dealer.

Google's refusal to engage with Trkulja had forced him to file a legal complaint against the technology company in 2012 alleging it was indexing 'grossly defamatory content'. Google had argued it was not a publisher and was simply pointing to material published by third-parties, and that its search results took into account Trkulja's defamation claims.

Appeal for injunction

In 2013, Google removed links to some websites and blocked a number of autocomplete predictions and search queries relating to Mr Trkulja. However, it declined to remove the images of Mr Trkulja being indexed by its systems.

Trkulja subsequently petitioned the Court of Appeal of Victoria's Supreme Court claiming Google had failed to block access to the damaging images, and asking it to grant a permanent injunction that would remove his name from Google's servers and receive AUD 355,000 in damages. 

Trkulja's suit was finally dismissed on the basis that the publication of his images next to those of hardened criminals could reasonably mean that Trkulja himself was a hardened criminal. 

Google as publisher

In 2018, Trkulja appealed the Court of Appeal's verdict to the High Court, which overturned the decision on the basis that the search engine results could be construed as defamatory, that Google should be treated as the publisher, and that Trkulja should be allowed to bring forward his case. 

Operator: Alphabet/Google
Developer: Alphabet/Google

Country: Australia

Sector: Media/entertainment/sports/arts

Purpose: Rank content/search results; Predict search results

Technology: NLP/text analysis; Deep learning; Machine learning
Issue: Accuracy/reliabilty; Mis/disinformation; Legal - defamation/libel 

Transparency: Governance; Black box; Legal