A Melbourne man has been given the green light to head to the Victorian courts to sue Google for defamation in a landmark decision by the High Court.
Milorad Trkulja has alleged that Google’s search engine presented images of himself in a way that could incorrectly show him to be “somehow associated with the Melbourne criminal underworld”.
The matter relates to an incident in 2004 where Trkulja was shot in a Melbourne restaurant, at the same time as many underworld shootings in the city.
In December 2012, Trkulja sent a letter to Google Australia requesting his images be removed from the search engine and his name blocked from searches.
He argues that a Google image search like “Melbourne criminal underworld photos” brings up a photo of him, along with the likes of Mick Gatto, Carl Williams and Chopper Reid.
Trkulja wants to sue Google for defamation, arguing that presenting his image in searches like this incorrectly connects him with these underworld figures.
“In each of the pages on which images of such persons appear, there are also images of persons who are notorious criminals or members of the Melbourne criminal underworld...coupled with images of persons such as Mr Trkulja whose identity is relatively unknown,” the High Court judgement said.
Google rejected Trkulja’s written request, saying it was “unable to further assist”.
He successfully argued in the Victorian Supreme Court in 2012 that Google had in fact defamed him, with the tech giant ordered to pay $200,000 in damages.
But the Victorian Court of Appeal rejected this decision in 2016.
The High Court has now overturned this decision and ordered Google to pay Trkulja’s court costs.
Trkulja is now able to head back to the Victorian courts to sue Google for defamation.
“I will sue Google…’til they stop,” Trkulja said. “I want them to block my pictures. I’m not a criminal. I’ve never been involved and I will make sure these people are not going to ruin my family - I have grandchildren.”
Google Australia’s lawyers have countered Trkulja’s claims, saying that it is “irrational” for someone to assume that because the man’s image is presented alongside underworld figures that he is connected to them.
The lawyers pointed out that photos of movie posters and actor Marlon Brando were also presented in the same image search.
But the High Court’s unanimous decision found that someone could “rationally suppose” that at least some of the people in the image search were involved with criminal activity.
“There is no evidence here...that it would have been apparent to an ordinary, reasonable person using the Google search engine that Google made no contribution to the elements of those search results that convey a connection between Mr Trkulja and criminality,” the judgement said.
“The most obvious, logical connection between the terms of the search and the response, under headings such as ‘Melbourne criminal underworld photos’, ‘Melbourne underworld crime’ and ‘Melbourne underworld killings’, or at least some of them, are criminals or members of the Melbourne criminal underworld.”
Trkulja has said he is “over the moon” with the court’s decision, labelling his ongoing fight against Google as a “David and Goliath battle”.
Trkulja also attempted to sue Google for defamation over its autocomplete function for his name, with it returning phrases like ‘is a former hitman’, ‘criminal’ and ‘underworld’. But the court was told that this function is automatic and based on previous searches.