Can a local judge force Google to remove search results in other countries? That is a hot question in Europe, and now the Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to take it up as well.
In an order last week, Canada’s top court said Google (GOOG) can appeal a ruling last year that required it to censor search results not only on its Canadian search engine (google.ca) but everywhere else too, including on Google.com.
The case involves Equustek Solutions, a maker of industrial networking gear that sought to stop a rival from allegedly misusing its trademarks online. In the process, Equustek sought—and won—an injunction forcing Google to remove search results for the rival not just in Canada, but also worldwide.
The case is attracting attention because it involves a local court imposing super-national jurisdiction on an Internet company. Critics of the ruling, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation digital rights group, say it harms free speech and fear it will embolden other companies and governments to seek expansive censorship rulings.
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A Canadian appeals court, which upheld the original injunction in 2015, downplayed such concerns. In its decision, the court pointed out that countries like the U.K. and Canada have issued worldwide injunctions in the past for intellectual property cases. It also dismissed free speech concerns, and found that Google would not face major inconvenience in scrubbing the search results.
The decision by the Supreme Court of Canada to hear the appeal, however, means the ruling could be overturned. Google, meanwhile, said the case raises bigger questions than a commercial dispute between two companies.
“This case raises important questions about the freedom to access information on the Internet, and whether one country can determine what the rest of the world can see online,” a Google spokesperson told the Globe & Mail.
The Canadian court’s decision to hear the case comes at a time when Google is facing a tightening web of censorship orders in Europe and elsewhere. The company’s most high profile battle has been taking place in France, where data regulators are seeking to fine Google for failing to comply with new “right to be forgotten” rules that let citizens request search results about them that are irrelevant or outdated be removed.
In response to pressure from France, Google first agreed to scrub the results from the “google.fr” site but not from other versions of the site. This month, however, Google offered to take a further step by using “geo-fencing” technology to block anyone in France from seeing any version of Google where the results in question might appear.
It’s still unresolved in both France and Canada whether judges in those countries have the legal power to force Google to scrub sites outside their borders.