Who has the right to police the internet? That’s the question facing Europe’s highest court Tuesday when France’s privacy watchdog squares up against Google in a hearing over how far the region’s so-called ‘Right to be Forgotten’ should extend in the digital world.
Back in 2014, the European Court of Justice ruled that anyone with ties to Europe could demand that search engines including Google, Microsoft’s Bing and others must remove links from online results if they infringe on people’s privacy rights and meet other hurdles.
France’s data protection agency wants the privacy ruling to apply anywhere in the world, saying that people’s rights could be harmed if the information — revenge porn or a past criminal conviction, for example — is still accessible, even outside of Europe.
“Once it’s accepted that something should be taken down, it should apply globally,” said Gwendal Le Grand, director of technology and innovation at the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés, or CNIL.
Google and several third-parties like freedom of speech and journalist groups disagree. They claim that Europe doesn’t have the right to impose its own views on other countries, with the U.S. First Amendment protecting much of what is posted online, for example.
They also warn that if Europe demands a global remit for its digital rules, what would stop the likes of China from doing the same? Russia, for instance, already has passed its own version of ‘right to be forgotten’ that critics say hampers online debate.
“Access to information in the public interest, and the right of all countries to define the balance between privacy and free expression within their own borders, are important, fundamental issues,” Peter Fleischer, Google’s senior privacy counsel, wrote about the case last year.
Here we go again
Many of these global questions were passed over when the ECJ made its original ruling four years ago. Since then, Google has progressively altered its position, first blocking search results only on European domains like Google.de, and then expanding it to remove these results from appearing anywhere in Europe (even if people revert to Google.com.)
Since 2014, the search giant has had almost 723,000 requests, involving 2.7 million links, and has agreed to remove the links in 44 percent of the cases, according to the company’s latest transparency report.
If individuals disagree with the search giant’s decision, they can appeal to their countries’ data protection watchdog.
There are legitimate — and unanswered — questions about the balance between someone’s right to privacy and people’s access to information, as well as the limits of a government’s power to regulate the inherently global internet. This question applies more broadly than just the “right to be forgotten.”
It extends to Germany’s efforts to regulate hate speech online; the European Commission’s pushback on Big Tech’s global tax practices; and even the recent efforts in Washington to rein in the perceived excesses of Silicon Valley.
We’ve reached a turning point where vying political powers are exporting their own versions of what the internet should look like beyond their borders. Some are looking to come up with answers.
But for now, it’s likely that — just as we’ll see in Tuesday’s ECJ hearing — we’ll be left with more questions than answers.
A version of this article was published in POLITICO‘s Morning Tech newsletter, available to Tech Pro subscribers. Sign up here.