Google on Universal Right to Be Forgotten: Fuhgeddaboudit

Google last week asked French regulators to withdraw a demand to universally delist from search results links to information about French citizens who wish to be forgotten on the Internet.

Any European can ask to have certain links about them removed from search results that appear in Europe, and Google will grant those requests if they meet specific criteria. However, the CNIL — France’s data protection agency — wants the delisting to extend to all search results, wherever they may appear throughout the world.

“This is a troubling development that risks serious chilling effects on the Web,” Google’s Global Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer said last week.

While the right to be forgotten is law in Europe, it is not the law globally, he noted. 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.

“We believe that no one country should have the authority to control what content someone in a second country can access,” Fleischer maintained.

The CNIL request is “disproportionate and unnecessary,” because 97 percent of French Internet users use a European version of Google rather than or any other version.

“As a matter of principle, therefore, we respectfully disagree with the CNIL’s assertion of global authority on this issue and we have asked the CNIL to withdraw its Formal Notice,” said Fleischer.

Race to the Bottom

In order to be effective, delisting must be carried out on all extensions of a search engine, the CNIL said in a formal notice submitted to Google in June.

Since Google did not comply with the notice within 15 days of its issuance, the CNIL could impose sanctions.

The Court of Justice of the European Union last year ruled that individuals can request the delisting of certain links from results of searches based on their names. The search engine then reviews those requests to determine if the links point to information that is inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant or excessive, and not in the public interest — and in such cases, remove them.

Appeals of search engine delisting decisions are taken up with the data protection authority in the country of the person requesting the delisting.

The CNIL has received hundreds of complaints following Google’s refusals to carry out delistings, its Formal Notice says.

Following the assessment of the complaints, the CNIL asked Google to carry out delisting some of the results and expressly requested that the delisting be made effective on search results globally.

“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,” Google’s Fletcher argued. “In the end, the Internet would only be as free as the world’s least free place.”

Balkanizing the Internet

Google’s skirmish with France could have consequences that reach beyond the two parties involved.

“The Internet is global, and no matter how well-intentioned the law is, any one nation applying their law globally sets a precedent,” said Christopher Budd, threat communications manager for Trend Micro.

Europe’s Right To Be Forgotten raises another concern.

“By doing what it’s doing, Europe has taken a step in another worrisome direction: the balkanization of the Internet,” Budd told the E-Commerce Times. “That means the Internet that people in France receive is a different Internet from what people in the United States receive.”

The existing system for imposing amnesia on the Internet leaves something to be desired.

“There’s a huge amount of power in Google’s hands to decide how it does this with very little influence outside of Google,” said Danny O’Brien, international director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“It’s like a secret agreement between Google and the data protection authorities in Europe. That’s sort of disturbing,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“There should be a law,” O’Brien urged, “instead of Google and a bunch privacy experts negotiating among themselves on a free expression issue.”

John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.

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