For quite some time now we’ve been talking about French regulators and their ridiculous assertion that Google must apply its “Right to be Forgotten” rules globally rather than just in France. Earlier this week, the company presented its arguments to the EU Court of Justice who will eventually rule on this issue in a way that will have serious ramifications for the global internet.
In a hearing at the EU Court of Justice, Google said extending the scope of the right all over the world was “completely unenvisagable.” Such a step would “unreasonably interfere” with people’s freedom of expression and information and lead to “endless conflicts” with countries that don’t recognize the right to be forgotten.
“The French CNIL’s global delisting approach seems to be very much out on a limb,” Patrice Spinosi, a French lawyer who represents Google, told a 15-judge panel at the court in Luxembourg on Tuesday. It is in “utter variance” with recent judgments.
Even if you absolutely despise everything about Google, the argument of French regulators should be of massive concern to you. France’s argument is that if a French regulator determines that some content should be disappeared from the internet, it is necessary for it to be memory holed entirely and permanently, literally calling such deleting of history “a breath of fresh air.”
“For the person concerned, the right to delisting is a breath of fresh air,” said Jean Lessi, who represents France’s data protection authority CNIL, told the court. Google’s policy “doesn’t stop the infringement of this fundamental right which has been identified, it simply reduces the accessibility. But that is not satisfactory.”
Where one can be at least marginally sympathetic to the French regulator’s argument, it is in the issue of circumvention. If Google is only required to suppress information in France, then if someone really wants to, they can still find that information by presenting themselves as surfing from somewhere else. Which is true. But that limited risk — which would likely only occur in the very narrowest of circumstances in which someone already knew that some information was being hidden and then went on a quest to search it out — is a minimal “risk” compared to the very, very real risk of lots of truthful, historical information completely being disappeared into nothingness. And that is dangerous.
The broader impact of such global censorship demands can easily be understood if you just recognize that it won’t just be the French looking to memory hole content they don’t like. Other governments — such as Russia, China, Turkey, and Iran — certainly wouldn’t mind making some information disappear. And if you think that various internet platforms will be able to say “well, we abide by French demands to disappear content, but ignore Russian ones,” well, how does that work in actual practice? Not only that, but such rules could clearly violate the US First Amendment. Ordering companies to take down content that is perfectly legal in the US would have significant ramifications.
But, it also means that we’re likely moving to a more fragmented internet — in which the very nature of the global communications network is less and less global, because to allow that to happen means allowing the most aggressive censor and the most sensitive dictator to make the rules concerning which content is allowed. And, as much as people rightfully worry about Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey deciding whose speech should be allowed online, we should be much, much, much more concerned when its people like Vladimir Putin or Recep Erdogan.
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