Google Challenges Right to Be Forgotten in French High Court

Google on Thursday filed an appeal with France’s supreme administrative court over an order from a privacy regulator requiring it to scrub certain search results around the world under a law called “the right to be forgotten.”

The March order from the CNIL requires Google and other search engines to delist the information of Europeans that shows up in searches for their name, even if the link points to truthful information and lawfully published websites referencing newspaper articles or government websites, according to Google.

The company complied by delisting search information on sites available from the country of origin of person who makes the request, as well as other EU country domains, it said.

The order to delist that information from all of Google’s global search capabilities is a bridge too far, general counsel Kent Walker said in an op-ed in Le Monde.

Race to the Bottom

“As a matter of both law and principle, we disagree with this demand,” Walker said. “We comply with the laws of the countries in which we operate. 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?”

Enforcing such a law could lead to a global race to the bottom that potentially would block from French citizens information that is perfectly legal in France, he said.

Google’s concern is not just hypothetical; it has resisted similar demands from other countries and has in some cases led to the blocking of its services, Walker noted.

Global Information Police

Such a requirement would place Google in an untenable position, according to theElectronic Frontier Foundation.

“CNIL’s specific demand — that search engines modify their results universally to comply with a uniquely French administrative decision — would set an extremely damaging precedent,” said Danny O’Brien, international director of the EFF.

“If every country demanded the same, it would transform what you see on the Worldwide Web into the sorry remains, after every country’s censorship policies had been subtracted,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“It feels like Google has it about right: The EU can police and regulate itself, but not the rest of the globe,” said John Carroll, mass communications professor atBoston University.

“That said, there seems to be a discrepancy in the number of removals that have occurred over the past two years. Google says it has reviewed almost 1.5 million requests, with 40 percent resulting in the removal of a search result. Other data suggests that the denial rate is closer to 75 percent,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“Regardless, the EU might more profitably address its criteria for removal: that search results appear to be inadequate or irrelevant. That gives Google an awful lot of wiggle room. Maybe before trying to widen the geographic scope of RTBF, the EU should attempt to narrow its criteria,” Carroll added.

Spanish Origin

The order in March followed a 2014ruling by the European Court of Justice in a case involving Google and Google Spain against the national data protection agency of Spain.

In 2010, a Spanish citizen, Mario Costeja Gonzlez, filed a complaint with the agency against a large newspaper in Catalonia alleging that a search of his name resulted in a 1978 real estate auction to recover social security debts allegedly owed by him, according to the 2014 ruling.

The Spanish agency initially ruled against him, arguing that the newspaper had published the information lawfully, but the complaint was upheld with regard to Google. Google and Google Spain went to the National High Court of Spain to fight the order requiring Google to scrub the information.

The company decided in 2014 to scrub a blog post by TV journalist Robert Peston regarding the case of Merrill Lynch chief Stan O’Neal, who was pushed out of the company after it took massive losses on reckless investments a year before the 2008 economic collapse.

“The experience with the implementation of Google v. Spain is that the vast majority of requests were made by private people concerning private matters,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of theElectronic Privacy Information Center.

“And Google’s unwillingness to delist globally,” he told the E-Commerce Times, “is both illogical as a matter of harm and inconsistent with its treatment of similar delinking requests for copyright violations.”

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

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