Google’s ongoing battle with France over its “right-to-be-forgotten” ruling is going all the way to one of France’s highest judiciary bodies, as the Internet giant launches a defense of what it’s calling a “foundational principle of international law” in order to avoid a “global race to the bottom.”
To recap, the right-to-be-forgotten ruling, or “right to delist” from search engines, as it could be more accurately described, was the result of a 2014 ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) and was designed to help individuals hide web pages that contain out-of-date, irrelevant, and ultimately “damaging” information about them. This has hitherto meant that those living in an EU country could ask Google and other search engine operators to de-index pages from European versions of search engines — such as .fr (France), .de (Germany), or .co.uk (U.K.). Over the past couple of years, Google says it has delisted about 40 percent of the roughly 1.5 million webpages it has reviewed.
So far, so simple. But a request made by France’s data protection regulator, the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertes (CNIL), demanded that Google (and other search engines) hide pages from all Google Search domains, including Google.com. After a long battle, Google finally gave in — to a certain extent — it agreed to restrict access to the delisted URL on all Google Search domains, with the provision that the restriction would only apply within the country of the person who requested the removal. So, if a web page was hidden based on the request of someone living in Germany, users in Germany would not be able to see that URL on any Google Search property (including Google.com). But if someone from that country were to travel to another country — even within the E.U. — they absolutely would be able to see the web page, but only on a non-E.U. version of Google, such as Google.com.
Still with us? Good.
Last month, Google was fined $110,000 by French officials for not going far enough in complying with the ruling. And now, clearly reaching the end of its options, Google is turning to France’s Supreme Administrative Court, the Conseil d’Etat (Council of State), which is a body of the country’s government that serves as legal adviser to the supreme court for administrative justice. Google is hoping to enlist the sympathies of this body as it continues to fight against the mandate to hide de-indexed results globally.
“As a matter of both law and principle, we disagree with this demand [to hide results globally]. We comply with the laws of the countries in which we operate,” said Google’s global general counsel, Kent Walker, in a statement.
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 also managed to scoop a coveted slot in France’s national Le Monde newspaper, where Walker’s opinion piece was published today.
Google’s right-to-be-forgotten battle is one of many fights faced by the Internet giant in Europe just now. Last month, the European Commission formally filed objections against the company over anti-competitive practices relating to its Android operating system. This came shortly after Google lost an anti-monopoly appeal in Russia over the same issue and as it faces a similar probe in the U.S. And all this before we even consider the existing accusations from the Commission that Google uses its dominance to bias search results.
As with all these other cases, there’s little question that a lot is at stake in the right-to-be-forgotten saga — more from a precedent-setting perspective than anything else. If Google is to start hiding results for key search terms globally, the company could have a lot of work on its hands as other countries and jurisdictions take note of what’s going on in Europe.