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By Daniel Ziffer
A Gold Coast accountant has taken tech giant Google to court, fighting a case that pits his small business against the anonymity of the internet.
Kyran Seeto is trying to get the US-based company to remove a brief anonymous review of his business, Max Accountants, and two wordless one-star reviews from internet users he does not believe have been clients of his firm.
“I’m trying to build a business, but with literally a keystroke they can destroy you,” he said.
“It’s not fair.”
In a Federal Court hearing Justice David O’Callaghan agreed the court could and should hear the case.
“The [court] has jurisdiction in the proceeding,” he said last week, adding: “The applicant has a prima facie case.”
Courts ruling against Google
The case is the latest seeking to tear down the veil of anonymity around internet comments and hold Google to account.
Newspapers and other media have long been held liable for the content they publish, but internet platforms such as Facebook and Google have argued they are not publishers.
So far, Australian courts are not buying that argument.
Google lost a nine-year legal battle against a South Australian researcher, after searches for her name linked to incorrect and defamatory material.
In February Adelaide lawyer Gordon Cheng won a $750,000 defamation payout against a woman who had never been a client but gave his firm a bad review on Google.
Mr Defteros successfully sued over web searches that brought up his name in relation to associations with Victoria’s gangland figures.
Justice Melinda Richards ruled Google was a publisher, despite denials by the company.
“The Google search engine … is not a passive tool,” she wrote in her 98-page judgement.
Google Australia representatives did not appear at the hearing for Gold Coast accountant Mr Seeto.
The company was contacted by the ABC but declined to respond because the matter is before the courts.
Bad reviews have ‘a significant impact’
Mr Seeto’s case revolves around just 82 words from internet user “Emma Anderson”, posted five months ago on a Google review that appears when people use the search engine to look for Max Accountants.
“Don’t bother going to this one,” the review says. “Unless you want your concerns and enquires to be met with hostility.
“My favourite is when the account (sic) said to me, ‘That’s a joke, I don’t believe that, that’s a joke.’
“They need training in customer service.
“Max accountants can take up to 20 days to even lodge your tax, they don’t tell you that.
“Wouldn’t bother, my first time using them and I know I’ll be going back to my old accountant.”
Mr Seeto said “Emma Anderson” was not a client, and nor were “Sharmane Harris” and “Brett Williams”, who left wordless one-star reviews about the same time.
Those internet users have not posted reviews at any other business or have any personal or identifying information attached.
“I’ve gone through it,” Mr Seeto said.
“These names I’ve searched on our database. I’ve asked staff: ‘Did it happen?’.
“I’m in the office every day, I sit next to my receptionist and my staff — why would we say something like that [as claimed in the review]?”
The accountant said small businesses were essentially powerless against the internet giant, which pulled in $4.8 billion in revenue in Australia last financial year.
“It has a significant impact,” Mr Seeto said.
“We advertise on Google. When clients come in we ask them where they’ve come from … more than half have come from Google.
“As a consequence of putting these [low-star ratings] on, they turn away or they’re not sure.”
The accountant’s lawyer, Mark Stanarevic from Matrix Legal, said his office often heard from clients with similar complaints: small businesspeople frustrated by negative, anonymous reviews that many believed had been written by malicious rivals.
“It’s a big problem because it’s so easy to do and it’s online,” he said. “And for a small business it’s so damaging.”
Dentist forces Google to open wide
Earlier this year, Melbourne dentist Matthew Kabbabe, who alleges he was defamed in an anonymous online review, convinced a Federal Court judge to order Google to unmask an internet user called “CBsm 23”.
When he gets their name, he plans to launch defamation action against them.
Dr Kabbabe said the single negative review had had a profound impact on his teeth-whitening business and his life.
“I believe it is extremely unfair that people are allowed to anonymously attack honest, hardworking small businesses,” Dr Kabbabe told the ABC at the time.
The review in question is the only one containing negative comments on Dr Kabbabe’s business page. Other reviewers have given his business five stars.
Former SA health department researcher Janice Duffy successfully sued the internet giant for defamation and won $100,000 in damages, plus interest, in 2015.
But it was not easy.
Dr Duffy alleged articles published on the Ripoff Report website from 2007 defamed her and Google had denied her request to remove the material from its search engine.
It was in 2009 that Dr Duffy found searches for her name on Google resulted in the display of extracts from — and hyperlinks to — material on the Ripoff Report. Two years later she launched a civil lawsuit against Google in the South Australian Supreme Court.
After her win in 2015 Google launched an appeal. In 2017 the appeal was dismissed by the full bench of the Supreme Court.
No way out
The steep decline of telephone books and suburban newspapers, coupled with the explosive growth of smartphone use and internet connectivity, means consumers are increasingly using search engines to find details of small businesses.
And Google dominates.
“Ninety-five per cent of the search market is Google. If you want to be found, it has to be Google,” said Taylor Merwin of StudioHawk.
StudioHawk works in the field of search engine optimisation (SEO), attempting to use Google’s algorithm so the company’s clients appear at the top of the page when people search online.
“Google is so important for small businesses,” Ms Merwin said.
“And reviews are too. Any kind of review is super important when it comes to customers wanting to buy your product or spend money on your services.
“So even when you do have a small number of reviews, people are going to go through those and see what people are saying about your business”.
Mr Seeto’s case continues.