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Authoritarian Tech

In a partial victory for Google, court limits ‘right to be forgotten’ to the EU

When is the last time you Googled yourself? Did you like what you saw? If you’re in Europe, you could get some of those bad links removed from the results. But it’s long been unclear if that rule applies globally.

Now, after years of debate, the European Court of Justice made a decision on Tuesday: You can force Google to remove defamatory or otherwise harmful results about you within the EU, but Google doesn’t have to take those links down on all its international versions.

“[C]urrently, there is no obligation under EU law, for a search engine operator who grants a request for de-referencing made by a data subject…to carry out such a de-referencing on all the versions of its search engine,” a press release published by the court said.

The case is widely seen as a victory for Google, which praised the decision. Some internet freedom advocates also see cause for celebration. As Oxford media policy researcher Roxana Radu explained, Google had a persuasive argument on its side.

“The argument that they put forward [is,.if the EU gets to apply its rules globally, next it might be China,” she said. “and that was a very powerful argument.”

But not everyone thinks this is an unqualified victory for Google.

To better understand the ruling, I reached out to Dan Shefet, a Paris-based lawyer who has led the charge for a global “right to be forgotten.” In 2014, he made headlines when he successfully sued Google to take down links falsely linking him to the Serbian mob. It was an early precedent where a European court forced Google to take down a link globally, not just within the EU.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Shefet said, saying he hadn’t expected the court to make a sweeping decision applying EU laws globally. Instead, he said, the court’s decision is narrow and subtle.

On one level, this latest ruling will make it more difficult for European authorities to enforce the “right to be forgotten” globally. But, Shefet said, it leaves open the door for global takedowns of information. He points to article 72 in the latest decision, which reads: “while…EU law does not currently require that the de-referencing granted concern all versions of the search engine in question, it also does not prohibit such a practice.”

Shefet said the decision leaves the door open for a global “right to be forgotten”: if a European country’s data privacy authority thinks it’s justified, they would still be able to force Google to apply a takedown order internationally. Radu confirmed this, saying “[t]here is a possibility for national authorities to do this.”

So how happy should Google be? According to Shefet, not so much.

“It’s certainly not a victory [for Google],” he said. “I wouldn’t cry victory if I were them.”

But Radu saw it differently.

“I’m sure they’re very happy,” she said. “The court basically ruled in their favor with a few additional provisions.”

 

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