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If Google search results are to comply with European law, they must do so globally, France's data protection authority has ruled. That means that Google must apply the EU's "right to be forgotten" to its search results throughout the world. After all, what good is being forgotten if another country's Google search could easily find your most embarrassing photos and memories?
The order comes after an informal appeal by Google which sought to limit the right to search results in the European Union. Google has strenuously disagreed with the ruling, saying it allows nations to impose their laws extraterritorially. If Google refuses to comply with France's order, however, they could face fines of over $1 billion.
Europe, the World's Least Free Place?
Last year, the European Court of Justice recognized a "right to be forgotten" that allows individuals to petition Google (and other search engines) to have certain web pages removed from search results. Many viewed the ruling as a vindication of individual rights to privacy and control over one's data -- others saw it as a violation of the public's "right to know."
Google, while never a fan, has been complying with the rule, evaluating and processing over a quarter of a million requests to delist, according to Peter Fleischer, the company's global privacy chief.
But Google believes the right exists solely in Europe -- and in European search results. It made that argument to France's Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés (the National Commission on Informatics and Liberty, or CNIL). According to Google, allowing the EU to dictate what can appear in its global search results "risks serious chilling effects on the web." Fleischer writes that:
There are innumerable examples around the world where content that is declared illegal under the laws of one country, would be deemed legal in others: Thailand criminalizes some speech that is critical of its King, Turkey criminalizes some speech that is critical of Ataturk, and Russia outlaws some speech that is deemed to be "gay propaganda."
If the CNIL's proposed approach were to be embraced as the standard for Internet regulation, we would find ourselves in a race to the bottom. In the end, the Internet would only be as free as the world's least free place.
It's Not Internet Imperialism, Vraiment
CNIL disagrees. The decision "does not show any willingness on the part of the CNIL to apply French law extraterritorially. It simply requests full observance of European legislation by non-European players offering their services in Europe," according to CNIL President Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin. If French users were able to circumvent French law by typing Google.com instead of Google.fr, the right to be forgotten would be powerless.
Speaking of powerless, Google now finds itself in a bit of a tough position. It cannot make a formal appeal to the French supreme court until it has been fined for violating CNIL's order. Such a violation could carry a steep cost. French regulations could allow Google to be fined two to five percent of its global operating costs -- with costs of $50 billion in 2014, that's a potential fine of $1 to $2.5 billion.