Former NSW deputy premier John Barilaro has been awarded a $715,000 payout after a court found Google uploaded multiple videos mocking the politician’s Italian heritage and framed him as a corrupt conman.
Mr Barilaro sued Google, the owner of YouTube, in the Federal Court for refusing to take down online videos he claimed were “vulgar”, “offensive” and ultimately defamed him.
Mr Barilaro on Monday morning appeared in the Federal Court where Justice Steven Rares said the former NSW Nationals leader had the right to not have his reputation “publicly vilified because of his race or ethnic origin”.
Justice Rares found Google defamed Mr Barilaro by keeping two videos online that “conveyed false defamatory imputations … namely that he is a corrupt conman, committed perjury and should be in jail.”
He told the court that Mr Barilaro could “expect to face robust public criticism” as a senior politician and was prepared to face harsh criticism.
“The right to criticise is not a licence to vilify, cyberbully, direct hate speech at, or make baseless attacks on anyone, even a high-profile and controversial politician,” Justice Rares told the court.
The videos, titled Bruz and Secret Dictatorship, were created in 2020 by popular comedian and political commentator Jordan Shanks, who attracts a huge following on his Friendlyjordies social media accounts.
Through his lawyer, Mr Shanks last year apologised to Mr Barilaro for the “hurt” suffered from the offensive videos and reached a settlement deal, where Mr Shanks paid $100,000 in legal costs and made edits to the two videos that remain on YouTube.
Google never struck a settlement deal and launched numerous defences to claims it was wrong to allow the videos to be posted on YouTube.
However, most of the defences were abandoned, with the tech giant claiming the videos were kept online in the public interest.
“Some of those defences were obviously hopeless,” Justice Rares said.
“I found that Google’s conduct in publishing the matters complained of was unreasonable.”
The court was told that Google publicly asserted it had policies about what could be published on YouTube that prohibit hate speech, cyber-bullying and harassment.
However, Justice Rares said Google “did not apply its own policies” as it did nothing to prevent Mr Shanks’ hate speech and harassments of Mr Barilaro.
During the proceedings, Mr Barilaro gave evidence that he had been “broken emotionally”, which led to his resignation from politics.
“I couldn’t face another election … I was done. I was broken. I was hurt. I had nothing left in the tank,” Mr Barilaro said.
Justice Rares said Google tried to “distance itself” from Mr Shanks’ publications, but it was an example of the tech giant’s “failure to take responsibility for its conduct as a publisher”.
The court was told Google did not play a “passive role” and earnt “significant revenue” from publishing the videos on YouTube.
“It could control whether or not they remained available on YouTube, yet it chose to do nothing,” he said.
“Despite being put on notice of their racist, hate speech and cyberbullying character in late 2020, Google left all of the videos then uploaded online and allowed further ones to go onto YouTube.”
Justice Rares found that Google had “ignored the deeply offensive and racist use of language” by Mr Shanks, such as “vindictive use of ‘wog’, ‘greasy’, ‘greasy little scrotum’, ‘meatball’ and links to the Italian mafia”.
He told the court that Google’s conduct was “improper and unjustifiable”.
“The conduct aggravated the damage to Mr Barilaro’s reputation and the hurt to his feelings very considerably,” Justice Rares said.
“It is necessary to award a substantial sum in damages to compensate Mr Barilaro for the harm Google caused to him and to vindicate his reputation.”
He ordered Google pay Mr Barilaro $675,000 in damages as well as pre-judgment interest of $40,000.
Google will pay a total judgment sum of $715,000.
In a statement, Mr Barilaro said he was grateful to have “finally been vindicated by the Federal Court”.
“This brings to a close a difficult time for me,” he said.
“All I wanted at the outset was for Google to remove these videos and they refused. It is no small undertaking for an individual to take on a company like Google, but it was important that I did so.
“This decision is a wonderful end to a decade of public service.”