Google's decision to censor its site more broadly in response to Europeans' requests to delete information about themselves sets a dangerous precedent, the digital rights group Center for Democracy & Technology says.
"We fear that in countries that engage in more severe online censorship and routinely restrict access to information, governments will demand that their censorship laws should be applied to global domains when accessed from their countries," writes Jens-Henrik Jeppesen, CDT's European affairs director.
He adds that this prospect could harm dissidents and other reformers who want to use the Web to advance democracy. "If this approach becomes standard practice for Internet companies, it will also serve as a barrier for new entrants to the online search and content-hosting business, as individual speakers and small businesses would struggle to implement geo-targeted availability of content based on several hundred countries’ laws," he writes.
Jeppesen's commentary comes in response to news that Google will now respond to some EU residents' requests to delete information by blocking Europeans from accessing search results.
Google will determine users' countries by their IP addresses -- a system that is far from foolproof. Netflix, for one, also tries to prevent people in some countries from accessing videos, but Netflix users have been able to circumvent the geo-blocking by connecting to the Web via virtual private networks.
Google's move, which came to light this week, marks an obvious attempt by the company to compromise with European privacy regulators, who have been pressing the company to broaden the "right to be forgotten" by censoring search results worldwide.
The development marks the newest twist in the company's long-running conflict with European officials over privacy. In 2014, Europe's highest court ruled that Google and other search engines must allow residents of European countries to delete links to certain embarrassing information about themselves from search results.
That decision empowers EU residents to ask Google to remove links to news articles, social media posts, and other material, but doesn't require Google to automatically grant those requests. Instead, Google is supposed to weigh 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, Google has removed links to old news articles, but the original pieces are still available on sites like BBC.com and TheGuardian.com.
Last June, France's data protection unit, CNIL, said Google must remove links from all of its results pages -- including Google.com in the U.S. -- and not just pages geared for European countries, like Google.fr.
The French authorities gave Google 15 days to comply or face the possibility of a $340,000 fine.
Google initially pushed back, arguing that allowing one country to censor the Web worldwide would result in a "race to the bottom."
"In the end, the Internet would only be as free as the world’s least free place," global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer said, noting that content that is legal in one country might be illegal in another. "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.'"
In September, France's data regulator rejected the company's appeal, potentially setting up a new court battle between Google and privacy regulators.
That battle could still occur, given that EU privacy officials haven't yet indicated whether they'll accept Google's partial concession.