Google has drawn a line in the sand with the EU, at least for the time being.
Last year European Union courts established a “right to be forgotten,” effectively bolstering their citizens’ privacy rights. Under that policy, citizens and residents of 32 European countries can request to have inaccurate or inappropriate information about them removed from search results. Google created a system for requesting removals and it seemed to be working fine.
But now European regulators want to go a step further—a step all the way across the pond. Google has been removing pages only from results for the affected countries (for example, google.fr or google.es). Regulators have decided this isn’t good enough; they want the results removed from google.com, too, even though that’s an American website. In fact, they want the offending pages de-indexed globally.
In fairness to the EU, they have a reason to complain. Google.com is available to users in France, Germany, and all 32 of the affected countries. All you have to do is navigate there manually. As long as the .com version of Google still indexes the “removed” pages, the Right to be Forgotten may as well be, well, forgotten.
But Google’s having none of it. While they acquiesced peacefully to the initial court decision, they haven’t made any changes to their google.com domain since regulators requested it in November. Google’s legal chief recently stated:
“It’s our strong view that there needs to be some way of limiting the concept, because it is a European concept.”
So far the company hasn’t been ordered to chance the .com results, and Google has promised to review its approach. But scrubbing the pages from the global index would involve major problems:
- Overreaching of European law. The idea that a U.S.-based domain aimed at American users should bow to EU regulations is a legal nightmare. It would set a precedent that courts in Europe can regulate America’s technology just because EU users have access to it.
- Cultural backlash. The US has a strong cultural belief that information should be free and that the internet should be open. Forcible de-indexing of web pages could be as appalling to Americans as lack of privacy is to Europeans. And the American public may not take well to having their online content adjudicated from overseas.
- Inequity for users. If google.com had to follow the Right to Be Forgotten, it would set up a surreal situation where a European could ask to be forgotten from US search results, but an American could not.
There’s a much easier solution that European governments could adopt: block google.com. EU regulators have no right to tell American websites what they can and cannot show in America, but they have every right in the world to pass a law blocking non-complying search engines in Europe.
Will the EU go that far? Probably not. Regulators have gone to great lengths to position this as a protection of privacy, not an act of censorship. That would be a much harder position to maintain once there’s a list of banned websites.
Which means that, at least for now, Google has a fair amount of leverage in the game of search engine chicken.
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