In the latest development of the ongoing battle between Google and the EU, regulators are now pressing the company to broaden the so-called “right to be forgotten” by censoring search results worldwide.
Last year, the highest court in Europe ruled that Google and other search engines must let residents of European countries delete links to certain embarrassing information about themselves from search results.
This week, France's data protection unit, CNIL, added that Google must remove links from all of its results pages -- including Google.com in the U.S. -- and not just pages that are geared for European countries. The French authorities gave Google 15 days to comply or face the possibility of a $340,000 fine.
Google reportedly intends to fight the French regulators in court.
Last year's ruling empowered residents of Europe to ask Google to remove links to news articles, social media posts, and other material, but the court did not require Google to automatically grant those requests. Instead, Google is tasked with weighing people's rights to privacy against the public interest in the information.
The European court's ruling only affects search engines, and not the original source of the information. In some cases, links to old news articles no longer appear in Google's results pages, but are still available online through sites like BBC.com and TheGuardian.com. Some of those articles referred to matters that certainly seem to be of interest to the public, including a series of Guardian pieces about Dougie McDonald -- a referee who resigned after lying about why he imposed a penalty in a soccer match.
The decision creating the “right to be forgotten” is seen as problematic for many reasons, but the most obvious is that it forces Google to purge truthful information. In America, free speech principles almost always prevent courts from issuing those kinds of censorship orders.
Another concern, noted recently by Boston College law professor Mary Rose Papandrea, is that the ruling leaves private, for-profit companies like Google in the position of making decisions about matters of public policy. If Google and other search engines refuse to take down content, the people who made the request can appeal. But the news organizations that published the original story -- and no longer receive traffic from search engines -- have no recourse.
When Google implemented the right to be forgotten, the company only deleted links from the European versions of its sites, while leaving the results available at Google.com and other URLs used by non-European countries. That move meant that people in the U.S. could still easily access the purged links, while people in Europe could view them by changing the default URL.
If Google agrees to the French regulators' demands, no one anywhere in the world -- including the U.S., where any attempt to create a “right to be forgotten” almost certainly would violate the First Amendment -- will be able to access the deleted links. Google should not give in to that kind of sweeping censorship without a fight.