Google is fighting a ruling in France that requires Google to not just honor search removal requests from users in France, but to also censor those results worldwide, including the USA. In March, the French data protection regulator (CNIL) ordered that its interpretation of French law regarding the right to be forgotten should apply not just in France, but in every country in the world.
This runs counter to the long-standing principal, that existed way before the advent of the internet, that a law in one country can’t be imposed on other countries. Otherwise, you would quickly get down to the lowest common denominator where countries with strict censorship rules would be able to force their standards on more open countries that value free speech, such as the United States.
Google’s global general counsel Kent Walker published an article in France’s Le Monde newspaper which Google republished in English in its Google Europe Blog. In the post Walker rightly attacks the concept that one country can tell other countries what to do stating:
“For hundreds of years, it has been an accepted rule of law that one country should not have the right to impose its rules on the citizens of other countries. As a result, information that is illegal in one country can be perfectly legal in others: Thailand outlaws insults to its king; Brazil outlaws negative campaigning in political elections; Turkey outlaws speech that denigrates Ataturk or the Turkish nation — but each of these things is legal elsewhere. As a company that operates globally, we work hard to respect these differences.”
The “right to be forgotten” is a right given to European Union member states allowing anyone to require Google to remove search result listings on request by individual citizens of those countries. This was based on a 2014 ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). As Walker points out in his article, “It lets Europeans delist certain links from search engine results generated by searches for their name, even when those links point to truthful and lawfully published information like newspaper articles or official government websites.”
Walker revealed that Google has of now reviewed nearly 1.5 million webpages, delisting around 40%. In France alone, they’ve reviewed over 300,000 webpages, delisting nearly 50%.
In March Google expanded the EU’s right to remove search listings even when searching on other domains from within an EU country. In other words, if you went to the main U.S. version of Google while in France you will now still only see the France version of Google search results. Also in March, in response to the Paris terrorist attacks, the French government enacted a decree that enables administrative de-listing of websites from search engines without requiring any judicial oversight. The problem with censorship for supposedly good reasons is that it often quickly leads to censoring benign content or censoring content that isn’t terrorism but is simply politically incorrect or disagrees with the governments perspective. A government for instance, may censor content that promotes free speech on the basis that it might be seen as sparking violence with Muslims. It’s a very slippery slope away from free speech and freedom in general.
Google’s Global General Counsel went on to say”
“As a matter of both law and principle, we disagree with this demand. We comply with the laws of the countries in which we operate. But if French law applies globally, how long will it be until other countries – perhaps less open and democratic – start demanding that their laws regulating information likewise have global reach? This order could lead to a global race to the bottom, harming access to information that is perfectly lawful to view in one’s own country. For example, this could prevent French citizens from seeing content that is perfectly legal in France. This is not just a hypothetical concern. We have received demands from governments to remove content globally on various grounds — and we have resisted, even if that has sometimes led to the blocking of our services.”
Google has filed an appeal of the CNIL’s order with France’s Supreme Administrative Court, the Conseil d’Etat.