The internet has put many companies in touch with the world. While this creates almost limitless possibilities for the exchange of information and commerce it also means exposure to a similarly bewildering array of regulations. One significant example involves European and American differences regarding the right to privacy and freedom of speech.
A 2014 European court decision in the case of Google Spain SL v. Costeja had held that people could request that search engines like Google remove information from searches of their names. The courts found that as an extension of an individual’s right to privacy there was a right to have old information about criminal convictions or other incidents forgotten. In the years since this decision battles have raged over what precisely this means.
The EU ruling on the right to be forgotten highlights a significant difference in European and American notions of rights. Europe’s courts found that an individual’s right to control information about them, including when it is appropriate to forget about embarrassing or damaging information, outweighs the freedom of speech held by publishers of the information. In the United States the balance of concerns typically falls in the other direction.
Following the original right to be forgotten case Google received nearly a million requests to remove more than 3 million links. They agreed to remove about half of them. France’s privacy watchdog CNIL fined Google 100,000 euros for refusing to de-list sensitive information globally on request. Google appealed to the French Council of State, which sought an advisory opinion from the European Court of Justice.
The European Court of Justice issued an opinion on the matter stating that there is currently 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 the de-referencing on all versions of its search engine.
This effectively means that there will be different versions of search engine results depending on the location of the person making the search. A person searching a name in France may not see any results that have been eliminated through a request under the right to be forgotten, but that same person searching on their laptop during a visit to New York would.
Google’s attempts to frame the issue as a matter of national sovereignty appears to have been successful. The ECJ’s ruling is final and becomes the benchmark by which future decisions will be made.
In the meantime, groups continue to lobby the government seeking similar rights for those within the US. This, and other issues such as state censorship in places like China, increasingly mean that the internet you see is dependent on where you are viewing it. The resulting fragmentation may be necessary for a nuanced treatment of the rights in individual countries, but it may also undermine the potential the internet has to bring together users across great distances.