Google on Tuesday criticized efforts by France’s privacy watchdog to globalize the so-called right to be forgotten, telling European Union judges that the regulator “is out on a limb.”
In a hearing at the EU Court of Justice, Google said that extending the scope of the right all over the world was inconceivable. 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 company said.
“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. The CNIL is France’s data-protection authority.
Tuesday’s hearing was held to help judges clarify the terms of the EU tribunal’s landmark 2014 ruling that forced the search engine to remove links to information about a person upon request if it’s outdated or irrelevant. The Alphabet Inc. unit currently removes such links EU-wide, and since 2016 it has also restricted access to such information on non-EU Google sites when accessed from the EU country where the person concerned by the information is based.
The U.S. company has been asked to delete links to 2.7 million websites, after the EU court effectively put the search engine in charge of deciding what requests to accept. Google has agreed to less than half of them. But people unhappy with Google’s refusal to remove a link can turn to privacy regulators.
“For the person concerned, the right to delisting is a breath of fresh air,” Jean Lessi, who represents the 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.”
There’s also an “unacceptable” risk that Google’s policy of geoblocking access to links can be circumvented, meaning that people in a particular country may find ways to see content that is meant to be restricted.
“We cannot simply limit those rights to the European frontiers; they would be dead rights,” Lessi said.
The French watchdog started an investigation into Google’s actions based on complaints and ended up hitting the search giant with a fine of $116,000 for failing to remove links from its global websites.
Google’s arguments have received some support from newspapers, which have often battled the search engine in Europe on other issues.
Removing links globally gives too much power to private companies, such as Google, to decide “what pieces of news the public should find or not,” the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers told the French court in a 2016 letter. Newspapers get dozens of requests every day to remove information from online archives by claiming a “right to be forgotten,” it said.
Microsoft and groups like the Internet Freedom Foundation and the Wikimedia Foundation intervened in Tuesday’s hearing, as did legal representatives for France, Ireland, Greece, Austria and Poland.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive authority, said the view expressed by some member states on Tuesday that the right to be forgotten should be applied nationally wouldn’t respect the fact that it’s an EU right.
The key objective is “to ensure an equivalent protection across the EU,” said Antoine Buchet, a lawyer for the commission.
The EU court’s 2014 ruling never defined how, when and where Google should remove links, which has triggered a wave of legal challenges. The EU judges are also weighing a second dispute, in which French courts are seeking advice over whether Google can refuse to remove some information that might be in the public interest. Those requests include information on a person’s personal relationship with a public officeholder and an article mentioning the name of a Church of Scientology public relations manager.
A London court earlier this year told Google to remove news reports about businessmen’s criminal convictions, in line with an English law that aims to help people put past crimes behind them. And judges in Paris told Google earlier this year to reduce the visibility of stories about a former chief financial officer fined for civil insider-trading violations.
While the right to be forgotten concerns all search engines, Google’s dominance in Europe means the company has taken center stage in the wake of the 2014 ruling.
An advocate general at the EU court is scheduled to deliver an advisory opinion Dec. 11.
Business on 09/12/2018