Google in Europe

A principle that should not be forgotten

Today, we published an op-ed by Kent Walker, Google’s global general counsel, in France’s Le Monde newspaper. We’re republishing the op-ed in English below. 

For hundreds of years, it has been an accepted rule of law that one country should not have the right to impose its rules on the citizens of other countries. As a result, information that is illegal in one country can be perfectly legal in others: Thailand outlaws insults to its king; Brazil outlaws negative campaigning in political elections; Turkey outlaws speech that denigrates Ataturk or the Turkish nation — but each of these things is legal elsewhere.  As a company that operates globally, we work hard to respect these differences. 

In March, the French data protection regulator (the CNIL) ordered that its interpretation of French law protecting the right to be forgotten should apply not just in France, but in every country in the world.   

The right to be forgotten - more accurately, a right to be delisted from search results - was created in a landmark 2014 ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). It lets Europeans delist certain links from search engine results generated by searches for their name, even when those links point to truthful and lawfully published information like newspaper articles or official government websites. 

Google complies with the European Court’s ruling in every country in the EU. Our approach reflects the criteria set out by the CJEU, as well as guidance from each country’s regulators and courts about the nuances of their local data protection rules. Across Europe we’ve now reviewed nearly 1.5 million webpages, delisting around 40%. In France alone, we’ve reviewed over 300,000 webpages, delisting nearly 50%. 

Following feedback from European regulators, we recently expanded our approach, restricting access to delisted links on all Google Search services viewed from the country of the person making the request.  (We also remove the link from results on other EU country domains.) That means that if we detect you’re in France, and you search for someone who had a link delisted under the right to be forgotten, you won’t see that link anywhere on Google Search - regardless of which domain you use.  Anyone outside the EU will continue see the link appear on non-European domains in response to the same search query.  

The CNIL's latest order, however, requires us to go even further, applying the CNIL’s interpretation of French law to every version of Google Search globally. This would mean removing links to content - which may be perfectly legal locally - from Australia (google.com.au) to Zambia (google.co.zm) and everywhere in between, including google.com

As a matter of both law and principle, we disagree with this demand. We comply with the laws of the countries in which we operate. But if French law applies globally, how long will it be until other countries - perhaps less open and democratic - start demanding that their laws regulating information likewise have global reach?  This order could lead to a global race to the bottom, harming access to information that is perfectly lawful to view in one’s own country. For example, this could prevent French citizens from seeing content that is perfectly legal in France. This is not just a hypothetical concern. We have received demands from governments to remove content globally on various grounds -- and we have resisted, even if that has sometimes led to the blocking of our services. 

In defense of this foundational principle of international law, we today filed our appeal of the CNIL’s order with France’s Supreme Administrative Court, the Conseil d’Etat. We look forward to the Court’s review of this case, which we hope will maintain the rights of citizens around the world to access legal information.