'Right to be forgotten' laws in Europe may erase data beyond its borders

Google has refuted demands by the French government to apply last year's ruling by a European high court that required search engines grant the right to be forgotten to all its domains - even those outside the continent. 

Virginia Mayo/AP
The Google logo is seen at the Google headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday, March 23, 2010.

Last year, Europe’s highest court ruled search engines were required to grant the right to be forgotten. This decision may now have ramifications for information on Google’s global domains, including in the United States.

The New York Times explains the original ruling: "Europeans who felt they were misrepresented by inaccurate or irrelevant search results – for example, misdeeds as a minor – could ask search engines like Google to delink material. If the request was approved, the information would remain online at the original site, but would no longer come up under certain search engine queries."

The French government now wants this ruling to take effect internationally.

According to a blog post by Google, earlier this summer, France’s data protection regulator ordered the company to delist links not just from European versions of search but from all versions. This would mean results that no longer show up on google.fr as a result of the right to be forgotten law would also be removed from google.com.

Google refuted these demands and said “no one country should have the authority to control what content someone in a second country can access.”

Many Americans agree.

“France is asking for Google to do something here in the US that if the US government asked for, it would be against the First Amendment,” Jonathan L. Zittrain, who teaches digital law at Harvard Law School, told The New York Times. He said, if enacted, the French regulator’s order would prevent Americans using an American search engine from seeing content that is legal in the United States.

It is also unclear how effective this ruling would be for France.

Google said this change would have minimal effect on the country’s population because “the overwhelming majority of French internet users—currently around 97 percent —access a European version of Google’s search engine like google.fr, rather than Google.com or any other version of Google.”

Writing in a blog post, the company also worried the extension of the ruling to different countries could set a dangerous precedent.

“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."

However, an investigation by The Guardian found most data deleted would likely have little effect on valuable public information, alleviating some fears for free speech activists.

They noted most data requested to be delinked is private, personal information.

“Less than 5 percent of nearly 220,000 individual requests made to Google to selectively remove links to online information concern criminals, politicians and high-profile public figures,” The Guardian reported, “with more than 95% of requests coming from everyday members of the public.”

Others have also criticized Google’s disapproval.

An op-ed in Al Jazeera America by Susan Dwyer, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland, questions Google’s stance on the issue.

“Long before its public squabble with the European Union, Google regularly removed content that contained a person’s Social Security, bank account, or credit card numbers from searches, and it readily agreed to copyright-related take-down requests by large corporations such as Disney and Sony,” Ms. Dwyer said.

She also thought the move served Google’s multiple interests.

“Google agreed to provide local delistings (thereby being seen to cooperate in upholding human rights) while refusing to provide global delistings (thereby maintaining its autonomy and being seen as a champion of fundamental principles of international law),” Dwyer added.

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