Google Grants a Majority of “Right to Be Forgotten” Requests—or Maybe None of Them

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 25 2014 12:24 PM

Google Grants a Majority of “Right to Be Forgotten” Requests—or Maybe None of Them

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The Internet, unlike this keyboard, doesn't really have a backspace key.

Photo by GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images

Good news for Europeans who want to hide their sordid or embarrassing pasts from casual Googlers: The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the Google has granted slightly more than 50 percent of “right to be forgotten” requests since the European Court of Justice implemented the right last May. That means perhaps 100,000 links have been stripped from Google search results in Europe, an apparent triumph for those who favor privacy over free speech.

But “right to be forgotten” boosters shouldn’t declare victory quite yet. Because the law only applies to search engines within the European Union, anyone interested in seeing uncensored search results can simply switch over to the America-based Google.com, or use a virtual private network. European privacy regulators are obviously displeased with this state of affairs and have toyed with enforcing the “right to be forgotten” worldwide—including in the United States. If they succeed, Americans could soon be seeing a censorship notification in our Google searches because an old man in Germany wants to hide his Nazi past.

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Could Europe really censor the search results that Americans receive from an American-based server? Probably not, but no one’s really sure. Other countries assert the right to restrict what Americans see and do on the Internet pretty frequently: Just this summer, Canada’s tried to twice, first attempting to filter American Google searches, then attempting to restrict spam sent from America to Canada.

These attempts are legally toothless, unenforceable, and doomed to fail. But one precedent is worrisome. In 2000, a French court asserted jurisdiction over Yahoo, an American company, forcing it to censor search results for Nazi memorabilia on French websites. Because French citizens could, in theory, purchase the items, the French court decided it had the legal authority to censor Yahoo’s results—even though its server were located in the United States. Yahoo tried to appeal the ruling in America, but the 9th Circuit refused to hear the case, holding that it had no jurisdiction over the French plaintiffs.

Thanks to that judicial bungling, we still don’t know the precise limits of other countries’ control over Americans’ Internet access. But given that the United States already shields its citizens against the censorship attempts of foreign nations, our judiciary is unlikely to smile on a European efforts to filter American searches. (That’s especially true where those efforts raise serious First Amendment concerns.) After all, if Europe has the power to censor what Americans see in the Web, so could China, or Russia, or any other countries whose policies we probably don’t want inflicted upon our Google searches.

European privacy regulators could, of course, pressure Google in other ways, like fining the company for refusing to scrub “right to be forgotten” requests from Google.com searches. But given Google’s overall commitment to free speech and freedom of information—as well as its deep pockets—the company seems unlikely to cave without a court order. That means that, for the foreseeable future, Americans and Europeans alike can still use Google.com to dig up whatever dirt, profound or petty, they so desire. 

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

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