Google fights global data deletion order in France’s highest court

20 May 2016

Google is appealing a ruling by France's data protection authority to extend the Right to be Forgotten globally

Google is appealing a decision by France’s data protection authority CNIL that could force the company to censor its search results worldwide.

The Alphabet-owned search giant has filed an appeal with France’s highest court, the Conseil d’État, to overturn a decision by the French data protection authority, the Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL), to extend the remit of the “right to be forgotten” globally.

The ruling by CNIL was made last year. CNIL also slapped Google with a €100,000 fine.

The “right to be forgotten” ruling was established by the ruling in the Google Spain v AEPD and Mario Costeja González case, which ruled that a person may be entitled to have Google search results about them removed if they feel it is not in the public interest for them to be public.

‘This order could lead to a global race to the bottom, harming access to information that is perfectly lawful to view in one’s own country’

Although limited to Europe, there have been moves by the EU to establish the “right to be forgotten” globally, while Google and experts have called for it to be limited to Europe.

Companies offering services to European citizens must comply with the ruling, even if their websites aren’t hosted in Europe.

So far, Google says it has reviewed almost 1.5m requests, of which 40pc resulted in the removal of a search result.

In France alone, Google has reviewed more than 300,000 web pages and delisted nearly 50pc.

As a result, people using Google in Europe cannot find the deleted results but people outside Europe can see the affected search results when they use a non-European version of the site, such as

CNIL wants Google to remove the search results in question globally, arguing that it is very easy for Europeans to access the international version of Google and see the results.

A race to the bottom

Google has warned that if the French ruling is applied globally, it could be just a matter of time before other countries start demanding censorship in other countries’ jurisdictions.

In an open letter to French newspaper Le Monde, Google’s general counsel Kent Walker warned of the possible implications.

“For hundreds of years, it has been an accepted rule of law that one country should not have the right to impose its rules on the citizens of other countries,” Walker wrote.

“As a result, information that is illegal in one country can be perfectly legal in others: Thailand outlaws insults to its king; Brazil outlaws negative campaigning in political elections; Turkey outlaws speech that denigrates Ataturk or the Turkish nation — but each of these things is legal elsewhere.  As a company that operates globally, we work hard to respect these differences.”

Google said that CNIL’s latest order to apply French law to every version of Google search globally would mean removing links to content that would be perfectly legal locally from Australia to Zambia and everywhere in between.

Walker warned that this would a race to the bottom.

“As a matter of both law and principle, we disagree with this demand. We comply with the laws of the countries in which we operate,” Walker said.

“But if French law applies globally, how long will it be until other countries – perhaps less open and democratic – start demanding that their laws regulating information likewise have global reach? This order could lead to a global race to the bottom, harming access to information that is perfectly lawful to view in one’s own country.

“For example, this could prevent French citizens from seeing content that is perfectly legal in France. This is not just a hypothetical concern. We have received demands from governments to remove content globally on various grounds – and we have resisted, even if that has sometimes led to the blocking of our services.

“In defence of this foundational principle of international law, we today filed our appeal of the CNIL’s order with France’s Supreme Administrative Court, the Conseil d’Etat. We look forward to the Court’s review of this case, which we hope will maintain the rights of citizens around the world to access legal information.”

French flag image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years