Google made a dramatic gesture to oppose censorship of its search results on Wednesday, telling French regulators in a blog post that it will not heed demands to implement so-called “right to be forgotten” requests on a worldwide basis. The move, which sets the stage for further confrontations between Google and France, also highlights a growing legal crisis for the internet.
The issue at stake relates to a controversial European Court of Justice decision from 2014 that forces Google to strip certain links from its search results. The decision provided a way for people to ask Google (GOOG) to remove “irrelevant” or “inadequate” search results, and has already led to more than a quarter million requests flooding into Google. But the rules for processing the requests are far from clear.
The biggest concern for Google right now is not just determining if a request meets the court’s “irrelevant” criteria, but deciding how far it must go to delete the requests. According to France’s data regulator, it is not sufficient for Google to remove a result from its European search pages (Google.fr, Google.de and so on). The regulator also insists the company must scrub the links worldwide by deleting them from its “Google.com” website too.
In its statement, published on the Google Europe Blog, the company said it will refuse to do that:
This is a troubling development that risks serious chilling effects on the web. Because while the right to be forgotten may now be the law in Europe, it is not the law globally … As a matter of principle, therefore, we respectfully disagree with the CNIL’s assertion of global authority on this issue and we have asked the CNIL to withdraw its Formal Notice.
The blog post also points out that 97% of Google searches in France take place on the European versions of the site (rather than Google.com), meaning the “right to be forgotten” is almost entirely in effect for practical purposes.
More broadly, the blog post also makes some very serious points about the implications of France’s request for free expression around the globe. Specifically, it points out how heeding France’s demands would make it easier for other countries to ask for similar treatment, and spread their forms of censorship everywhere:
Moreover, there are innumerable examples around the world where content that is declared illegal under the laws of one country, would be deemed legal in others: Thailand criminalizes some speech that is critical of its King, Turkey criminalizes some speech that is critical of Ataturk, and Russia outlaws some speech that is deemed to be “gay propaganda.”
If the CNIL’s proposed approach were to be embraced as the standard for Internet regulation, we would find ourselves in a race to the bottom. In the end, the Internet would only be as free as the world’s least free place. [my emphasis]
Google’s comments also come as more countries around the world, led by China, are seeking to rewrite the legal and technical architecture of the web to reflect local laws, and shun western notions of democracy and free speech. More troubling, the request for worldwide censorship are not only coming from autocratic countries and France; this year, an appeals court in Canada told Google it must purge certain search results on a global basis to comply with an intellectual property ruling.
As a result of the gauntlet thrown down by Google on Wednesday, the ball is now in the court of the French regulator to decide what to do. The regulator could fine Google, which could in turn lead the company to challenge the jurisdiction in French court, possibly triggering a prolonged legal battle back up to the European Court of Justice.
In the United States, meanwhile, public opinion appears to be firmly against creating a European-style “right to be forgotten.”