For three years, Google has been battling the courts in France over whether the E.U.’s “right to be forgotten” policy should be applied globally, or only within the E.U. Following a court victory on Thursday, it appears likely that Google will be able to contain that policy within E.U. borders.
The so-called right to be forgotten comes from the case of of Mario Costeja González, a Spanish citizen who had his name listed in a Spanish newspaper in 1998 after being forced to sell some property due to debt. In 2009, Costeja González began attempting to get mentions of the sale removed from the internet, saying it was no longer relevant. Costeja first contacted the newspaper, and then Google’s office in Spain, requesting that search results for his name no longer direct users to the decade-old story.
The case went to court, and five years later, the Court of Justice of the European Union — the E.U.’s version of the Supreme Court — ruled that it was the responsibility of search engines to consider and honor requests from E.U. citizens who wanted to clear up their search engine results. Thus the digital right to be forgotten became a privilege enjoyed by all citizens within the E.U., and Google has removed 1.1 million links from its search results since.
The problem? Those links only disappeared if you were searching from within the E.U. E.U. citizens can currently do things like request that Google remove links to personal information such as home addresses from searches for their names. But any changes Google makes to search results will only apply to searches made within the E.U.: for anyone in the U.S. or with a U.S. IP address, or any E.U. citizen using a VPN to spoof their location, for example, search results will be unaffected.
France had sought for links to be removed globally, instead of strictly within the E.U. Google argued that this could infringe on national sovereignty and free-speech laws (and, of course, Google has an interest in keeping as much data as possible searchable in as many places as possible). Today’s decision means Google’s argument for the case will likely win out.
The right to be forgotten has been a difficult policy for all parties since it was put in place in 2014. There aren’t clear rules about when and why someone can request for Google to remove links — the problematic pages are often cited as containing “inadequate” or “irrelevant” information, but there are no real guidelines about that means, leaving it up to Google to decide.
On a larger scale, the policy puts two groups in direct conflict with each other — data privacy advocates and free speech advocates. Free speech advocates say the right to be forgotten, in the wrong hands, could allow dictators to rewrite history, and prevent the public record from being complete. Privacy advocates say the right to be forgotten is vital for protecting people from things like revenge porn, or having their names attached to stories about, for example, having been charged with crimes that they were ultimately never convicted of.
Today’s decision is a momentary victory for Google, which will likely continue to mount legal challenges to the overall concept of the right to be forgotten. If Google had lost the case, the policy could have potentially been stretched even further — an appealing outcome by some measures. As is more and more the case, the best protector of consumer data rights is the E.U., with the rest of the world benefiting indirectly from its policies.
If you’ve ever had your name attached to an unfortunate search result, whether it’s your fault or not, you know what a bummer it can be. (Pity all the guys named Richard Spencer who were just living their lives until the white supremacist Richard Spencer had his sudden turn in the spotlight.) There are certainly free-speech implications to be worked out, but in a society in which the first instinct is always to Google someone, the right to be forgotten seems like one that every country — and not just the E.U. — should be considering.