This past week, the courts have upheld the French government’s data protection office (CNIL) order for Google to broaden the “right to be forgotten” by censoring search results worldwide — not just in Europe.
Google had appealed the initial CNIL ruling.
The CNIL rejected Google’s argument that a worldwide implementation of the European standard of censoring search results would mean that the Internet would be only as free as the “least free place.” (Think Belarus or Syria.) But in its ruling, the CNIL noted that a country-by-country implementation of the “right to be forgotten” would mean that the right could be circumvented too easily.
While it’s true that more than 95% of Google searches in Europe are performed via European versions of the company’s search engine tool, such as google.fr and google.co.uk, identical searches can be performed easily using google.com, meaning that anyone trying to find “forgotten” information on an individual can do so easily, irrespective of the European standard.
As I blogged back in May, The European Court of Justice’s 2014 ruling meant that Google is required to allow residents of EU countries to delete links to certain harmful or embarrassing information that may appear about themselves in Google search results.
The directive has turned into a real thicket of challenges for Google.
What the definition of “harmed and embarrassing” is is somewhat amorphous, as the court’s ruling encompassed links to information ranging from excessive and harmful on one end of the scale all the way down to links that are merely outdated, inadequate or irrelevant.
Since the ruling went into effect, Google has had to field requests to remove more than one million links from European search results.
Link removal isn’t accomplished via some sort of “bot” procedure. Instead, each request is considered on a case-by-case basis by a panel of arbiters made up of attorneys, paralegals and search engineers.
Approximately one-third of the links in question have been removed following panel review, while about half have remained in search results.
The rest – the real toughies – are still under review, and their status as yet unresolved.
Obviously, for this activity to spread from covering just European search engines to include potentially the entire world isn’t what Google has in mind at all. (If Google could have its way, doubtless the whole notion of “the right to be forgotten” would be off the table.)
But the situation is getting pretty hot now. French authorities imposed a 15-day compliance deadline, after which Google could be fined nearly US$350,000.
Of course, the amount of that penalty pales in comparison to the cost Google would incur to comply with the directive.
But that fine is just the opening salvo; there’s no telling what the full degree of financial penalties might turn out to be for continued non-compliance.
I wrote before that it’s difficult to know where the world will eventually end up on the issue of censoring search engine results. Today, I don’t think we’re anywhere closer to knowing.