In 2014 the European Union’s highest court held that EU citizens had the “right to be forgotten,” or in other words, the right to request that a search engine remove from its results materials that are “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive.” Immediately after the ruling, Google began delisting results across all of its European versions of Google (google.fr, google.co.uk, etc.), while leaving the results on other versions of Google unaltered.
In June 2015, France’s privacy regulator, the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés, or CNIL, ordered Google to apply the right to be forgotten on all versions of the search engine throughout the world. Instead, Google used location information to restrict search results for anyone searching within the European Union, regardless of the version they used. But the CNIL was unsatisfied and fined the search engine €100,000 for not complying with the order. Google is appealing the order and the fine to France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil d’État.
Is Google required to comply with this order? What happens if it refuses?
There have been numerous cases of countries attempting to impose their national standards on internet companies whose goods and services are offered throughout the world. In one case, Equustek Solutions Inc. v. Jack, a Canadian court ordered Google to remove certain web pages from its search results on searches performed both within Canada and throughout the world. On its first appeal, the court upheld the worldwide order, but that case is currently up on appeal to the Canadian Supreme Court.
As such, precedent does little to predict the outcome of Google’s fight against France, but the upcoming years could be very decisive in how countries interact with internet companies. It seems unthinkable that Google would leave itself vulnerable to asset seizure in these countries by refusing to comply with the orders, but it is likely that Google will run into first amendment issues in the United States if it does comply.
Despite the fact that France and the EU believe the right to be forgotten is fundamental and necessary for its citizens, ruling that Google searches must be censored worldwide would have troubling results in the future. If a court in France has the power to determine the search results of an individual in Japan, what is to stop other countries from ordering Google to censor results how they see fit? It may seem far-fetched to equate this order with an order from Saudi Arabia prohibiting all pornography or an order from a dictator that none of his political rivals’ material appear on Google searches worldwide, but all are part of a sliding scale that it is too slippery and dangerous to start down.