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France and the global censorship of Google

Posted by on June 13, 2015.

There’s still an awful lot of guff being written about the ‘right to be forgotten’, especially by certain Americans who believe that their own right to free speech trumps all limitations on free speech anywhere else in the world. Here’s an example:

What’s worse, if France or other EU countries get away with this attempt to impose their own censorship standards onto the entire planet, we can be sure that government leaders around the world will quickly follow suit, demanding that Google globally remove search results that are politically “inconvenient” — or religiously “blasphemous” — or, well, you get the idea. It’s a virtually bottomless cesspool of evil censorship opportunities.
Just Say “NON!” – France Demands Right of Global Google Censorship

What lies behind this outburst is the statement issued by CNIL, the French data protection authority on Friday. The CNIL English language statement says:

In accordance with the CJEU judgement, the CNIL considers that in order to be effective, delisting must be carried out on all extensions of the search engine and that the service provided by Google search constitutes a single processing.

In this context, the President of the CNIL has put Google on notice to proceed, within a period of fifteen (15) days, to the requested delisting on the whole data processing and thus on all extensions of the search engine.
CNIL orders Google to apply delisting on all domain names of the search engine

That is, France is demanding that where it is deemed that Google must remove certain links from its search engine, it must do so for every localized version of Google anywhere in the world (and not just the European local versions).

Notice that CNIL uses the term ‘delisting’ rather than the popular term ‘right-to-be-forgotten’ – which is usually translated in the US as ‘censorship’.

Personally, I don’t like the phrase ‘right to be forgotten’. In the long term the EU would like to see customers (eg, users) be able to demand that personal information be removed from providers (eg, Facebook) if and when they cease using the service.

That would be a right to be forgotten — but that’s not what we have so far. What we have is a court ruling limited to search engines. People, under certain circumstances, have the right to demand that certain links be removed from the search engines including but not limited to Google. France says that those links should be removed from all versions of, say, Google, and not just

Is it censorship?
It’s not censorship. It’s like saying you have to remove the index; it’s not saying you have to burn the book. The content of the book remains; but researchers would be forced to read a hundred books in the hope of finding what they are looking for. That’s a serious inconvenience in today’s world, but fairly standard practice just 20 years ago.

Why is RTBF from search engines important
Consider… A standard Joe gets accused by a youngster of being a paedophile. Said standard Joe is arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced as a paedophile. According to the law of the land, said standard Joe is a paedophile.

A year later new and irrefutable evidence demonstrates that he was and is innocent of all charges. He is not and never has been a paedophile.

However, newspaper stories of his trial and guilt are likely to outnumber newspaper articles about his release. A search on ‘standard Joe’ returns proof of a paedophile, not proof of a non-paedophile — and said standard Joe’s life is ruined unfairly forever.

That is why there is a search engine right to be forgotten. The articles about the trial will still exist; but they will be much harder to find. Paedophiles cannot demand removal of links; but subsequent proof of innocence would not merely make RTBF reasonable; it would be entirely correct.

Why are American complaints (probably) hypocritical guff?
Let’s say I start a new company that allows direct-to-satellite communications in the USA. This would allow people in the US to communicate with, say, tribesmen in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan using strong encryption without touching a US company. For administration I need a purely administrative office in New York.

The PATRIOT Act (which I believe to be abominable) could allow the US government to demand all data from my servers in Switzerland. I refuse saying I am not a US company, even though US citizens are using my service, and the PATRIOT Act is a bad thing.

I rather suspect (although all of this is hypothetical) that most Americans would feel that in these circumstances I should be subject to American law. Well, that’s not so far different from the France saying that Google, since it operates in France, should be subject to French law — even if Google doesn’t like it.

Now I’m not suggesting that Americans are worse than anyone else (we have D-Notices, sophisticated government control of the media and much worse in the UK); but if they genuinely value free speech they should be lobbying

  • to prevent court-authorised gag orders
  • to protect whistle-blowers rather than prosecute them under espionage laws
  • to laud rather than harass publishers like Julian Assange

The US is no worse than any other country in denying free speech. However, this rather child-like belief that it is the saviour or freedom of expression throughout world is just political jingoism. And the inaccurate description of delisting as censorship of Google is more childish than childlike.

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