In an expected but controversial move, Google has rejected a demand by the French Data Privacy authority CNIL to apply the European “Right to be Forgotten” worldwide.
We have covered the E.U.’s Right to be Forgotten before, but here is a quick recap: under the E.U. rule, individuals have the right to require organizations that control personal data about them (“data controllers”) to delete all such data and abstain from further disseminating it. A data controller is required to act on an individual’s request to delete their personal data without delay unless they have a legitimate reason for not doing so. A series of European Court rulings established that search engines such as Google qualify as “data controllers,” and that search engines can be required to “delist” links to content as a means of preventing that content from being disseminated. Most surprising however, is the suggestion in these rulings that Google can be required to delist links from all Google domains, not just from domains in the E.U. or in specific E.U. countries.
The worldwide delisting concept was first applied to Google in X & Y v. Google France, In that case, a Paris Tribunal ordered Google to remove links to websites containing information on the French plaintiffs from all Google domains, rejecting Google’s claim that delisting the links from google.fr should be sufficient since all individuals accessing Google in France are redirected to google.fr. According to the Tribunal, the plaintiffs’ claims could not be limited solely to the links returned on google.fr because Google did not demonstrate the impossibility of connecting from within French territory by using other Google domains.
Following the ruling, Google began to delist links on its google.fr domain, but kept them on other domains. These actions were not sufficient for the CNIL, a French Data Privacy authority, which issued a formal request in June demanding that Google widen its implementation to all Google domains or face sanctions. CNIL gave Google 15 days to comply.
The ruling and subsequent demand raised several concerns. Internationally, many legal commentators worried about the ability of one country to pass a law that would so severely restrict the right of individuals in other countries. Meanwhile, free speech advocates warned that if Google did as requested, it would lead to other countries passing Right to be Forgotten laws with fewer free speech protections then are included in the E.U. rule, and that such laws would result in a “race to the bottom” and severely limit what information can be accessed online.
On July 30, 2015, Google’s Global Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer issued a blog post declaring that Google would not comply with the CNIL’s demands. Unsurprisingly, the post stressed the concerns highlighted above. First, Fleischer restated Google’s position that “while the right to be forgotten may now be the law in Europe, it is not the law globally.” He then went on the highlight the potential dangers of a rule that would allow one country to restrict what information can be accessed online by individuals in other countries:
“[T]here 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.”
These are legitimate concerns, and it is unclear how this issue will end up playing out. The CNIL can follow through and sanction Google, but since the maximum sanction is €150,000, it seems unlikely that the fine will do much to change Google’s stance. This is especially true since Google’s entire business model is based on their users being able to access the maximum amount of information online. That being said, the Right to be Forgotten can’t really be said to work if all it takes to “remember” information is to conduct searches on google.com instead of google.fr. With stakes this high, it seems unlikely that this is the last Google will hear from the CNIL or the European Courts.