Google succumbs unconditionally to EU’s “right to be forgotten” ruling

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With an unprecedented move, Google has recently made a new, decisive turning decision to its never-ending story with the European Union. As reported last week, the American tech giant is about to take the “Right to be Forgotten” case to the next level. Google indeed will soon hide content from all its global domains, including the American one, google.com, when accessed from a European country.

The right to be forgotten goes global

The move would represent a considerable change to how the Mountain View, California-based company’s users view its search results. Initially, Google had only hidden relevant results from its EU sites that fall under the right-to-be-forgotten rule every time a person from a European country searched for info, but only inside the Old Continent’s domains. From now on, according to Reuters and other media outlets, this info won’t appear anymore anywhere in the world, and all results will be filtered every time the search engine is accessed from a European Country.

The news, although not yet made official by Google and only revealed by people with “direct knowledge of the matter” in condition of anonymity, as reported by the New York Times, will have anyway a tremendous impact. In short it is the latest attempt by Google to comply with the 2014 landmark ruling by the European Court of Justice, which granted the EU citizens the right to ask web-search engines to remove personal information about themselves. Needless to say how the decision by the EU’s top court put Google in trouble and its enormous heritage of digital information at risk.

The old deal was not enough

Initial efforts by Google to comply with the brand new ECJ ruling, back in 2014, did not meet the EU Privacy regulators’ esteem. Since May 2014, Google has had to face more than 387,000 requests from individuals to remove links, evaluating around 1.3 million URLs and approving the 40% of them , according to the company’s transparency report, but this seemed still not enough.

Last September, CNIL, France’s powerful data protection authority, threatened to fine Google unless search results were removed from all its websites, meaning not just the European ones. Last June, CNIL openly called for Google to delist URLs when required worldwide, enlarging the “Right to be forgotten range”. Reuters now reports a spokeswoman for the French CNIL saying authorities had been informed about Google’s latest plans, which said that the “issue of territorial scope requires careful thought”. “These elements are currently the object of an inquiry by the services of the CNIL”.

Rise of “online censorship”?

Many now fear that an enlargement of the Right to be Forgotten ruling would result in a sort of severe online censorship. The Washington, D.C.-based NGO Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) has been historically very critical against] the EU ruling, saying it has inevitably curbed free expression. Now their evaluation after Google’s latest move is even harsher.

“We fear that in countries that engage in more severe online censorship and routinely restrict access to information, governments will demand that their censorship laws should be applied to global domains when accessed from their countries”, said Jens-Henrik Jeppesen, Representative and Director for European Affairs at CDT, in a statement last week. “That would be a serious step back for dissidents and others who seek to promote human rights and democracy in their countries”, he added.

Google’s mission at risk

The latest move by Google represents for sure a concession toward the adoption of a more conciliatory approach with European privacy regulators, although it can be a serious threat for the mission of the Californian tech giant. The ECJ’s landmark ruling is undoubtedly at odds with the company’s goal of providing “unfettered information” to people worldwide. Being the right to fall into the oblivion right or wrong, which would harm anyway Google’s mission,  the US tech-guru has always struggled so much to comply with the EU’s privacy rules.

Geo-political implications

The right to be forgotten is without a doubt a very delicate matter. From a social perspective, for instance, it draws automatically a debate between privacy activists against freedom of speech champions. But it should not be underestimated either on a geo-political view. The American Enterprise Institute, a stars and stripes conservative think tank, raised an interesting point just last week. Claude Barfield, former consultant to the office of the US Trade Representative expressed his critics against an alleged “race to the bottom” that Google has put itself into while trying to embrace the European requests.

“As for dealing with the EU on this issue, there is an obvious venue: the ongoing US-EU free trade negotiations (TTIP)”, he underlined. “The US should make it clear that the issue will become a high priority in the TTIP negotiations in coming months and years”, he added.

With the principle of free flow of data already secured in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that the US has recently concluded, one can be sure that the debate to have it enshrined in the transatlantic trade agreement will be long and bumpy.

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