GOOGLING your own name used to be mocked as a vanity thing.
Or maybe a paranoia thing.
But perhaps after some recent court wins by an Aussie bloke against two search engine giants, self-Googling might become a lot more popular and interesting.
You may have read about it. Milorad (Michael) Trkulja was unlucky enough to have been shot in a Melbourne restaurant in 2004.
The crime was never solved, although Mr Trkulja has been quoted saying he believes he knows who tried to shoot him.
The story of the shooting was reported in the Melbourne Herald Sun, and scans of the newspaper article were posted on a variety of websites devoted to Melbourne crime.
Those scans apparently popped up – complete with Trkulja’s name and picture – when people searched Yahoo and Google.
Trkulja, a music promoter described by the Herald Sun as ‘‘a colourful identity’’, felt that so many people were seeing his picture online alongside those of various gangland identities that his reputation was suffering.
So he sued both Google and Yahoo for defamation, and won a couple of hundred thousand dollars from each.
The search engines argued that it wasn’t their fault. They just found stuff that other people had produced.
But the court put them in the same category as a newsagent, say, that distributed papers and magazines. Such shops could be liable for defamation, so search engines could too.
Up until now, search engines have been able to put responsibility for defamatory content back on the providers of that content.
But cases and judgments are starting to mount up.
Former German first lady Bettina Wulff sued Google because the words “prostitute” and “escort” used to appear as suggestions next to her name on searches.
And a Japanese man won an action against Google because the “autocomplete” feature linked his name to crimes he didn’t commit.
After the Trkulja case I imagine people all over the world will be doing online searches on their own names, just in case.
I did one, just to see.
I don’t think I can sue Google on the basis that people might think that I am the well-known racing car champ Greg Ray.
Or a comedian of the same name.
But when I do an image search and find a couple of mug-shots of criminals with the same name as me I might be getting warmer.
So, how will all this affect the internet?
Will actual, real crooks be able to scare search engines into deleting search references to them? Would that be a good thing?
I still get emails from people who can read, online, old articles I wrote in this newspaper about legendary cancer con-man Paul Perrett, and many of them tell me those archived articles have made them cautious about dealing with him.
Perrett, twice jailed for fraud and robbery, ripped off scores of people with fake cancer cures and fooled hundreds with fanciful tales of his alleged university qualifications.
He lives outside the Hunter now, but I still get calls from people telling me they’ve met him and heard the latest versions of his astounding stories and interesting investment ideas.
Could Perrett demand that the stories about him be struck from search results, preventing people from finding out about his murky past and being put on their guard?
And will it go further than defamation?
Newsagencies have been found liable in the past for distributing offensive material such as illegal pornography.
Would search engines be liable if they directed people to websites containing illegal material?
Seems to me that either the law or the internet is going to have to change.