If you are in the habit of leaving online reviews for businesses, a recent Federal Court decision highlights some of the risks you face, depending on what you write.
This matter concerns Dr Matthew Kabbabe, a dental surgeon based in Victoria. Like many other businesses, one way in which Dr Kabbabe attracts clients (or in other words, builds trust within his clients) is through Google reviews. While his reviews are positive, one person, who says he/she is a former patient, left a very negative review, alleging that Dr Kabbabe is inexperienced and that patients should stay away from him.
Dr Kabbabe states that this review is false. He says the review, which is there on Google for everyone to see, has damaged his reputation. He does not know whether the reviewer is a former patient, a disgruntled staff member or a competitor, but he wants to sue for defamation.
There is just one problem: the identity of the reviewer is unknown to Dr Kabbabe and the general public. But not necessarily Google.
Dr Kabbabe has asked Google to reveal the reviewer’s identity (or at least whatever Google knows about this) but Google, unsurprisingly, refused to do this.
Dr Kabbabe has sought orders from the Federal Court whereby Google is compelled to release all information in its possession relating to the identity of the reviewer. The Court has agreed to make these orders. As a result, Dr Kabbabe’s lawyers have now sent the Court’s orders to Google’s California headquarters, and they are waiting for Google’s response.
This case has been reported by some media outlets as ground-breaking. Others commented that Google owes a duty of care to users globally. We will see but, in the meantime, there certainly some important issues arising from this case that everyone should be aware of:
- If you post something online, there are consequences. Just because it is online and not the “real world” doesn’t mean that you are immune from court proceedings if what you say is defamatory. (Another example of this is the recent defamation case between the principal of the Tambourine State High School and some parents, which has received a fair bit of media coverage. The parents there made comments on Facebook which got them into trouble.)
- We might find out more as to just how much information Google keeps about us. The reviewer in Dr Kabbabe’s case has used a pseudonym. But the Federal Court accepted that Google may have information about the reviewer’s IP address, alternative email address, name, phone number, location metadata and so on. In practical terms we will see if Google is able to identify someone who otherwise tried to hide their identity.
- Finally, it remains to be seen if Google will even comply with the Court’s orders. The Federal Court’s order was made here in Australia. Google was not a party to the hearing. If they simply don’t comply with the orders, it is going to be a mammoth task to try and enforce the order against Google.