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Federal Court Unmasks Google Users’ Cloak of Anonymity

Federal Court Unmasks Google Users’ Cloak of Anonymity

A recent finding in the Federal Court may herald significant changes to the way Google reveals information about anonymous users who post false reviews.

19th February 2020

A landmark decision in the Federal Court could change the way in which tech giants such as Google release information. Currently, Google will only release information identifying a user via a Court order. The problem with this however, is that Google is subject to Californian laws. This means that this information can take months to be released.

In this case, an anonymous user of a Google account published a negative review of a dentist in Melbourne. Google will now only have a couple of weeks to hand over information which will identify the user, enabling the dentist to commence legal proceedings. 

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The surge in false online reviews

Along with the emergence of online review platforms such as Facebook and Google, have also come false reviews. Customers these days rely heavily on online reviews when deciding whether or not to make a purchase. Whether it’s the work of a jaded customer, competitor, or troll – the effects these have on businesses can be devastating. The law has been slow to catch up to the content we see on the internet, and for every regulation that exists to protect businesses online, there are more ways to get around it.

Removing defamatory reviews on Google

It can be difficult for businesses to have false reviews removed from sites such as Google. Businesses can flag these reviews for removal, but they often only get removed if the reviews are obviously false or offensive. Some instances where a review can be removed are:

  • If the review uses profane language
  • The review contains racist or discriminatory content
  • If a current or former employee wrote the review
  • If the review is obviously the work of a fake account

In the event that Google doesn’t approve a request for a review to be removed, then you will have to obtain a Court Order. However, by the time Google gets around to removing the review, the business may have already suffered significant losses. After this, a business’s only option is to take legal action. Taking legal action however, means that you need to know the identity of the user who posted the review.

Finding anonymous account users

If you look at a business’s reviews, you’ll likely see a few with incomplete names or aliases. In this case, the poster used the name ‘CBsm 23’. Many users do this to protect their privacy, but this is also a common tactic used by trolls to avoid detection. It’s relatively easy for users to create Google accounts with false names. However, Google has the capacity to track the IP address of the user, thereby uncovering their true identity. 

It’s getting these records released which can be an arduous task. Prior to last week’s ruling, obtaining records for a company that is headquartered overseas could take months as both Australia and the country in question would have to approve the Court’s request. In this case, the Court has allowed for the Order to be sent to Google’s head office by international registered post. 

What this ruling means

This ruling means that would-be plaintiffs will have less hurdles to cross when trying to identify the people behind anonymous Google accounts. Google will have to act more swiftly when revealing the identity of anonymous accounts, minimising the damage that false reviews do to businesses. Further, this may act a deterrent if users know that Google won’t protect their identity at all costs. 

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Author
Jackie Olling

Jackie is the Content Manager at Lawpath and manages the content team. She has a Law/Arts (Politics) degree from Macquarie University and is an admitted solicitor in the Supreme Court of NSW. She's interested in how technology can help shape the future legal landscape.