On the surface, Google’s response to the request of the French data protection regulator, CNIL, to extend the “right to be forgotten” to all internet sites indexed by the Mountain View giant.
In its official response Google argues “While the right to be forgotten may now be the law in Europe, it is not the law globally. Moreover, there 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.”
Google continues, explaining that they believe “no one country should have the authority to control what content someone in a second country can access.”
This by itself is not problematic. Indeed, it is laudatory that a company with the power and reach of Google commits itself so strongly to the free access to information across borders. It’s why I can call Turkish President Recep Erdogan foolish on my personal blog despite it being a crime in Turkey to insult the head of state. It’s also why information about events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 remain freely available online outside of China despite being heavily censored within the country.
But Google’s commitment to a free internet – one that is run by the rules of no country – can be questioned when it comes to US. Specifically, the US copyright laws that govern the ways in which DMCA takedown notices are handled by Google.
Economics versus Identity
Google’s argument that “no one country should have the authority to control what content someone in a second country can access” is appealing, but it is also misleading. Currently, US copyright law is relied on to remove content from Google’s global index, no matter where an alleged incident occurs, and at a rate at least three orders of magnitude greater than partial delistings under data privacy laws.
Powles details that Google has acceded to 97% of the 345 million copyright requests it has received, delisting infringing material worldwide on the back of complaints based on American laws.
How such submission to the authority of US legislation sits with a stated commitment to an internet free from the control of the laws of any country is difficult to understand.
So, too, a recent court case that saw Google required to globally delist copyright-infringing material on the ruling of a Canadian court.
Google, it seems, is willing to submit its index to adjustments when it comes to the economic interests of North American copyright holders, but not when it comes to the identity rights of European citizens.
Google Needs to Make Up Its Mind
Google need not submit itself to CNIL demands, or for that matter to the demands of the Thai, Turkish, or Russian governments. Neither should it necessarily change its position or behavior with regards to takedown notices issues under the copyright laws of the United States.
But what it should do – even must do – is find some consistency in its approach to the content it chooses to remove from its index, and why. At the present time it is difficult for Google to escape charges of hypocrisy when, on the one hand, it explains to Europeans that no one country should rule the web, while all the time submitting its global index to the demands of rights holders using US laws to demand index excisions.
Google needs to decide where it really stands: does it really believe in a free internet where no country can control the web of another country’s citizens, or does it want the laws of one country to define what is acceptable to find on a Google search results page?