Google’s clash with France on “right to be forgotten” raises questions about the limits of Sovereignty online

Aug 3, 2015
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After the European Union courts ruled last year that Google must oblige certain requests by European citizens to be delisted, subsequently called the “right to be forgotten,” Google has responded to a follow-up request by France’s data privacy council (CNIL), stating that it will not delist individual search results on a global scale. In its official response, Google says that, if it abides by France’s request, it will thus have to abide by any sovereign nation’s request, meaning that “the Internet would only be as free as the world’s least free place.”

A bold image, Google’s stance, as usual, goes beyond a simple request to adapt to the pleas of a national agenda, but instead beckons to the appeal of a nation-less freedom, begging yet again the question: where does a country end and the Internet begin?

As with most national attempts, Google is likely to win, namely because they have been around longer than the current administration, and they have enough money to throw at the problem until it has favorable results. That isn’t to say that Google is the evil player in this story – a Righteous King must defend his throne the same as an Evil One – but it has the wherewithal to impose its idea of freedom on the Internet, which is to say on the World.

There are multiple definitions of Freedom

One of the most essential things to understand is that there are varying definitions of freedom: it truly isn’t black & white. The United States’ definition of freedom allows the KKK to march in the streets – it is their right to express their views – whereas in France, like many countries, hate speech is illegal. While the US would argue that a government shouldn’t decide what is & isn’t hate speech, France makes it clear: homophobia, racism, or any other gender/national/generalist-based negative rhetoric isn’t tolerated.

This part of Freedom isn’t being threatened by the Right to be Forgotten; however, the varying definitions of the limit of a citizen’s rights are in question: France errs on the side of a citizen’s right to not be spoken ill of while the US errs on the side of a person’s right to express their grievances. The extent to which this impacts culture is huge: for example, French media are responsible for any hate-speech or libel in the comments section of their blog, meaning that French media employ companies like Netino to manage their comments section, so that they don’t get in hot water over an angry person on the Internet.

Where does France stop and the Internet begin?

The Right to be Forgotten has inadvertently become the cultural fight between Europe & the United States in order to influence the culture of the Internet. The Internet, for the most part, is American. There’s no two-ways around that – it isn’t just dominated by American companies. It embodies American ideals – freedom of speech, compromising personal values in the name of advantageous business practices, and, of course, security for its citizens as an afterthought to a major breach.

The only countries that get out from under the American grip over the Internet are countries like China & Russia that “censure” the Internet – that is, they filter what comes to their citizens, essentially forking the Internet into two versions; however, France has already toyed with this notion. Currently resurfacing on the Internet via Reddit, a 2009 interview with French politician Jacques Myard saw the politician saying that France needed to get out from under the grip Americans, citing China as an example. He has since gone back and forth on his ambiguous opinions, stating that a European Union controlled Internet (though not its content, only its infrastructure) was more accurately what he was suggesting.

Currently, the line is blurred between what is & isn’t Sovereign on the Internet. I believe that national Top-Level Domains (gTLDs) – .fr, .de, .co.uk, – were an attempt to syphon control away from the US-controlled .com; however, globally present companies always fall back on their .com (Airbnb.com, Uber.com, etc.), which means that, where sovereign nations would most like to take control, they are unable to. Meanwhile, wherein it pertains to citizens, the sovereign nation can make requests for exceptional access to user data. A citizen’s data can be demanded, but a nation-less sense of Net Neutrality also guarantees privacy for all Internet users, regardless of the country they are in (in theory, of course – I’m not here to talk about all the invasions of privacy going on around the world).

Personally, I believe that there is a need for a pan-national agreement between both nations & Net Neutrality initiatives – call it a digital NATO – that will guarantee a global agreement on what I would call “Internet Law” – a minimum level of security required by companies who store personal data, a clear definition of what is & isn’t personal data, and an outline of where governments can & can’t intervene, potentially via a third-party administration that all Internet companies would interface with. If it sounds cumbersome, remember that, currently, not a month goes by that Google, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Airbnb, Uber et al. aren’t declared illegal, asked to invest millions in some national-Interest custom development to appease current political agendas.

Regulation of the Internet sounds scary, because we’ve become so accustomed to the Wild West feeling where anything is possible, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to have clear-cut roads, police departments, laws & infrastructure to support a stable existence in this New (Digital) World. Throwing money at the Wild West Internet is a temporary solution, but it creates as much disparity between the haves & haven’ts as regulation might – laying down rules & regulations can be scary, but the alternative solution of continuing to navigate in the dark is much worse.