Wed, Aug 12, 2015 - Page 9 News List

The battle for free speech: France versus Google

France’s insistence that the ‘right to be forgotten’ should be extended to is a threat to the US’ first amendment

By John Naughton  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

The so-called “right to be forgotten” is climbing back up the news agenda. It all stems from a landmark decision by the European Court of Justice mandating that European citizens have a right to demand that links to online material about them that are deemed to be misleading or inaccurate should not appear in Google search results.

The judgement came as a surprise to most people and as a really big shock to Google. However, over the past year, the company has found a way of complying with the judgement — by setting up a process for handling requests for delisting and deleting successful applications from search results in all of its European search engines.

Leave aside for a moment the fact that the right to be “forgotten” is not a right to be forgotten — because the material in question still remains online. It is actually a right not to be found by Google. However, since most people in Europe use their local version of the company’s search engine (for example, or and since Google had devised an efficient system for processing requests, it looked as though a pragmatic solution to a thorny problem had evolved.

That problem is the disjunction between local laws and a global network. Although Google is a US-based company, it had no option but to comply with the European Court of Justice ruling because it trades with — and has assets in — all the countries in the EU.

However because it is based in the US, it also has to obey the laws of that nation. In the US, the first amendment to the constitution means that people take a very dim view of any interference with free speech. Sanitizing Google search results to comply with the rulings of a foreign court would certainly be perceived as such an interference. So while the right to be forgotten links are removed from for example,, they remain visible on search results from, which is easily accessible from any European nation.

It turns out that some of Europe’s data protection regulators are not amused by this.

On June 12, French data protection authority CNIL served Google with a formal notice stating: “The CNIL considers that in order to be effective, delisting must be carried out on all extensions of the search engine and that the service provided by Google search constitutes a single processing. In this context, the president of the CNIL has put Google on notice to proceed, within a period of 15 days, to the requested delisting on the whole data processing and thus on all extensions of the search engine.”

Google global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer is understandably rattled by the extraterritorial pretensions of the French.

“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,” he wrote in a blog post

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