Monday

18th Feb 2019

Analysis

Google has own idea of what 'right to be forgotten' means

  • 'While the right to be forgotten may now be the law in Europe, it is not the law globally' (Photo: Rosa Jimenez Cano)

Since a landmark ruling on the so-called 'right to be forgotten' by the Court of Justice of the European Union, Google has received requests to remove over a million website links from its search results in Europe.

Of those 1,057,561 uniform resource locators (URLs), it deleted 370,112, or 41.3 percent, Google says.

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The court had ruled in May 2014 that if an internet search into an EU citizen's name yielded results which were “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”, that citizen may request the search engine to have those removed from the list of results.

For example, Google complied with a request from a Belgian whose conviction of a crime was quashed on appeal to remove an article about them. It also removed an article about a rape victim in Germany.

However, it did so only for the European versions of its search engine. That means the articles can still be found by those using google.com. This has come to the attention of the French data protection authority.

It sent Google a formal notice in June, saying “delisting must be carried out on all extensions of the search engine”.

On Thursday, the US company asked the French data watchdog to withdraw the notice. It interprets the court ruling as obliging Google only to apply the ‘right to be forgotten’ on its European versions of Google Search.

“While the ‘right to be forgotten’ may now be the law in Europe, it is not the law globally”, Google's global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer wrote in a blog post.

However, in its ruling the EU court did not differentiate between the worldwide and national versions of the search engine.

Google, in its blogpost, also noted that the French order “is disproportionate and unnecessary, given that the overwhelming majority of French internet users—currently around 97%—access a European version of Google’s search engine like google.fr, rather than Google.com or any other version of Google”.

But this statement is misleading at best. Many people don't use a national variant of Google instead of the global one, but in addition to it.

Google.fr is indeed the most visited web domain in France, according to internet traffic pollster Alexa. But Google.com is ranked third, between Facebook.com and Youtube.com.

According estimates, Facebook has about 26 million users, and Youtube around 22 million, in France.

While calculation methods may vary, this means that Google.com is used by, roughly, between 22 and 26 million French internet users – or along the lines of between 40 and 47 percent.

The picture is similar all over Europe, where the national version of Google is the most popular website, and the international version ranks as high as number two in the UK, Spain and the Netherlands, number three in Poland.

Google did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Free speech

Fleischer also argued that if the French data protection authority CNIL had its way, this would affect internet users in the rest of the world.

“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,” he wrote.

Google warned of a risk of “serious chilling effects on the web”, noting examples of content that is illegal in one country but which is legal in others.

“Thailand criminalises some speech that is critical of its King, Turkey criminalises some speech that is critical of Ataturk, and Russia outlaws some speech that is deemed to be “gay propaganda."”, he wrote.

But Fleischer is overstating the effect a national – or in the EU case regional – court order has on the wider development of the Internet.

In 2002, there were similar fears after a ruling in an Australian libel case against American company Dow Jones over the publication of an online article from its business magazine Barron's. The highest Australian court decided that because the article was available in Australia, the subject could sue for defamation there.

Following the decision, the New York Times wrote in an editorial the case “could strike a devastating blow to free speech online”.

But the conclusion of authors Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu in their 2006 book “Who controls the Internet?, Illusions of a Borderless World”, that the predicted devastation has been held off, is still valid today.

Moreover, they criticised the US-centrism that is present among Internet freedom activists as much as in the rhetoric of American companies like Google.

Goldsmith and Wu wrote that “the First Amendment does not reflect universal values … and they are certainly not written into the Internet's architecture”.

However, some of the most used websites worldwide are American, and they inherently carry some of those American values, which slightly differ from European values, where privacy is generally regarded as much more important.

Google said it disagreed with the French data protection authority “as a matter of principle”.

Principle or also profit?

But it could well be that part of the company's motivation comes from the costs that would be involved with extending the right to be forgotten to its other domain names.

Technically, it is not impossible for Google to do it. But it may reduce the public company's profit margin.

As Goldberg and Wu noted, “national Internet laws are no more burdensome than the scores of conflicting national laws that multinational firms typically face”. In return, companies gain access to an enormous market.

Having to adhere to different laws when providing services around the world, is part of the deal for running a global company. Even online.

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