Google is fighting back against an attempt by a French regulator to make it apply the divisive “right to be forgotten” worldwide.
The American search giant is refusing to recognise French privacy watchdog Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés’ (CNIL) “global authority” and has formally requested that it withdraw its order, Politico reports — potentially opening the door to fines for non-compliance.
The right to be forgotten is the principle that people should be able to appeal to search engines to have information about them that is outdated or irrelevant removed from search listings — even if the information is factually accurate.
It was implemented in Europe following a ruling by a Spanish court in May 2014, and its introduction has pitted privacy activists against freedom of speech advocates. The former say that it is necessary so that people’s pasts do not hang over them forever, while the latter argue that it restricts internet users’ free access to information.
Google strongly opposes to the right to be forgotten, but it implemented the ruling on European versions of the Google website anyway. This means European citizens can now send in requests to the search giant and, if approved, the web pages identified will be removed from search results. (The web pages themselves are not removed.) Google has approved around 1 million requests since its introduction.
However, it is only implemented on European domains, like Google.co.uk and Google.fr — visitors to Google.com and other global versions of the site will see the full, uncensored results. This has angered CNIL. It wants Google to implement the right to be forgotten worldwide, arguing that “in order to be effective, delisting must be carried out on all extensions of the search engine.”
In practice, this would mean that if a French resident successfully appealed to have a URL delisted, it would be removed from search results across the globe — not just in countries where European courts have any jurisdiction.
When CNIL gave the initial order, a Google spokesperson told Business Insider that the company has “been working hard to strike the right balance in implementing the European Court’s ruling, co-operating closely with data protection authorities. The ruling focused on services directed to European users, and that’s the approach we are taking in complying with it.”
It has now hardened its stance, with global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer arguing in a blogpost on Thursday that CNIL’s order “a troubling development that risks serious chilling effects on the web.” He explains:
While the right to be forgotten may now be the law in Europe, it is not the law globally. 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.
As such, Google is setting itself up for a confrontation with the regulator. “We believe that no one country should have the authority to control what content someone in a second country can access,” Fleischer writes. “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.”
What happens next? Politico reports that CNIL says it will respond within two months to Google’s argument — and that the organisation has the power to fine Google for non-compliance.
Whatever the outcome, it is another strain on the California company’s already-fractured relationship with Europe. It dominates the market on the continent even more so than it does in the US — 91% (desktop) search share versus 77% in the US — and has become the subject of considerable ire from authorities. Issues include accusations of tax avoidance, antitrust allegations, and previous clashes with Spanish regulators over linking to news sites.
At the start of June, Google’s new European boss Matt Brittin — appointed in February — gave his first public interview. He admitted that Google had made mistakes in the past, and said that “as far as Europe is concerned: We get it. We understand that people here are not the same in their attitudes to everything as people in America.” Brittin identified a failure of communication as part of the reason relationships have deteriorated: “We just didn’t have the people on the ground to be able to have some of those conversations as we grew.”
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