Can an Anonymous User Be Held Liable for Defamatory Google Reviews?

Google reviews are an effective way to grow a business’ online presence and have become increasingly common in digital marketing.

Recently, the Federal Court compelled Google and Optus to hand over data relating to an anonymous user to assist a dentist pursue a defamation case in which a negative review had a profound impact on his teeth whitening businesses.

The defamatory google review

The anonymous reviewer claimed a recent dental procedure undertaken by the plaintiff was not “done properly” and was a “complete waste of time”. They further went on to warn patients to “STAY AWAY”, accusing the dentist of having “never done this before” and making it “extremely awkward and uncomfortable”.

After unsuccessfully asking Google to take down the review, the plaintiff requested they provide information about the reviewer which was denied on grounds that they did not have the means to investigate.

The plaintiff instigated proceedings in the Federal Court seeking leave to serve subpoenas on both Google and Optus to produce information pertaining to the reviewer.

The judgement

Justice Bernard Murphy held that Google would likely have control over the identification information. His Honour ordered Google to produce to the dentist any identifying information of the anonymous user including names, phone numbers, IP addresses and metadata pinpointing locations.

Google was also ordered to produce any other Google accounts that may have used the same IP address during the same period of time, whilst Optus was ordered to hand over all customer details identifying the reviewer.

What can we take from this?

Google reviews are an area ripe to give rise to defamation proceedings where the content of the review is defamatory.  This was the case in Cheng v Lok [2020] SASCA 14 where the Supreme Court of South Australia awarded $750,000 in damages against a woman who posted a one-star rating of the plaintiff’s business on Google, along with an extensive negative review.

This case goes to show that those making potentially defamatory google reviews or comments online may have a harder time hiding behind a veil of anonymity.  It now seems feasible that information that may be used to identify anonymous posters may be compelled from third-party sites such as Google and Optus.

Regardless of whether the user is acting anonymously online, a defamation claim will likely be successful if it can be proven that:

  • Defamatory material was published; and
  • The individual or business are clearly identified; and
  • It caused or is continuing to cause harm to reputation of the subject person or business; and
  • The statements in the publication are not substantiated by facts.

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