Hey Google - I give a damn 'bout my online review

Anyone can post a negative online review and in the blink of an eye, bring down a business’ reputation.

Negative online reviews have the power to permanently ruin the online presence of businesses on popular platforms such as Google. In this digital age, it is a situation not unfamiliar to business owners around the globe.

But how can companies defend their reputation from defamatory and damaging reviews when Google requires no verification from its users? Australian business owners have struggled for years to convince Google to take down negative and allegedly false reviews when unable to identify and contact anonymous authors. The recent decision of Australian Federal Court Judge, Murphy J, has tipped the scales back in favour of independent business owners.

Following the Federal Court’s decision on 12 February 2020, Google will be compelled to provide information to Melbourne dentist, Dr Matthew Kabbabe, to help him track down anonymous author “CBsm 23” who posted an allegedly defamatory review in relation to Kabbabe’s dental practice.

According to Murphy J, the review stated that Dr Kabbabe was “extremely awkward and uncomfortable”, that the procedure was not “done properly” and it seemed that the he “had never done the this before”, such that other patients should be warned and “STAY AWAY”.[1] In November 2019, Dr Kabbabe had asked Google to remove the review and in February 2020 asked Google to identify CBsm 23. Google refused both requests, stating that “we do not have any means to investigate where and when the ID was created.”[2]

Despite this, Murphy J has considered that Google is likely to have or have had control of the documents or data to help Dr Kabbabe identify CBsm 23 and will be ordered to provide information including IP addresses, subscriber information, and any phone numbers associated with that account. [3]

With anonymity as a shield against any repercussions, it is a very real possibility that online reviews provide false and misleading information about companies. As identified by Dr Kabbabe’s lawyer, the CBsm 23’s review was “malicious” and there exists a possibility that it came from a competitor or disgruntled former employee.

The Federal Court’s decision comes after the Supreme Court of South Australia’s ruling in Cheng v Lok [2020] SASC 14 where a Barrister, Gordon Cheng, was awarded $750,000 in damages over an online review containing false information from a woman who never hired him.

This case stands as the latest of many defamation claims raised against large digital platforms, including Google and Facebook, who refuse to take down anonymous and allegedly false reviews about businesses.

It seems the tables are turning, and Google has some answering to do.

Written  by Laura Scotton with the assistance of Felicity Thurgate.

[1] Kabbabe v Google LLC [2020] FCA 126, at [15].

[2] Kabbabe v Google LLC [2020] FCA 126, at [17].

[3] Kabbabe v Google LLC [2020] FCA 126, at [18].