Google fights against global 'right to be forgotten' in search

It's a battle between privacy and free speech.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
3 min read
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Lawyers for Google faced Europe's top judges on Tuesday to argue against upholding the rights of European citizens to have links about them removed from search results across the whole of the internet, rather than just within the EU, as they do currently.

Under EU law, European citizens can appeal to have certain information that's out of date, incorrect or embarrassing about them removed from search results -- the so-called "right to be forgotten". A chamber of 15 judges at the European Court of Justice will decide on the extent to which this law should apply, with an opinion due Dec. 11.

The decision by the judges on how to interpret EU law will affect not only Google, but other search engines, including Bing and Yahoo. If it decides against Google in this case, search companies will be required to make sure information delisted in Europe is delisted everywhere. For European citizens this means their right to privacy will be upheld across the entire internet.

The judges are tackling two questions. Firstly, whether this information should just be delisted in Europe, or globally. Secondly, whether certain sensitive information -- political opinions, health data and criminal convictions, for example -- should be deleted automatically, rather than having to undergo review as part of an appeal.

Google and other search engines have been obliged to comply with the right to be forgotten since a 2014 ruling by the European Court of Justice. The search giant was firmly opposed to the ruling and enlisted the help of free speech advocates to protest. Unfortunately for Google, the ECJ has the final word on the application of the EU law. To continue operating in the region, the company had no choice but to comply, creating a compliance team to handle removal requests from within the EU.

But until now Google has only scrubbed information it was required to remove from search results from its regional sub-domains (such as Google.co.uk, for example). Search on Google.com, and the information will still show up, providing an easy workaround for those looking to access delisted information.

National data protection agencies for some EU states have argued that by leaving information accessible on search engines outside of Europe, Google is not doing enough to protect their citizens' privacy. France's supreme court last year referred the questions the ECJ is currently debating to the court due to the complexity of interpreting the law.

Google argued on Tuesday that it already removes enough links from search results within Europe, and that it shouldn't have to remove links globally. The company didn't immediately respond to a request for further comment on its stance.

Applying the law has cast Google in the twin roles of watchdog, making calls about the privacy of European citizens, and of free speech advocate. Since 2014, the company has delisted 44 percent of the requested URLs following review, according to its transparency report.

The right to be forgotten debate is often seen as a conflict between the right of the individual to privacy and the rights of wider society to free speech. Civil society groups, campaigners and activists on both sides of the argument were in court on Tuesday, some providing arguments to the ECJ's 15 judges to assist them in their decision.

The question of whether the law should be applied globally has been openly discussed since 2014 when the the ECJ made its seminal ruling, but is one we should finally have an answer to later this year. So mark your diaries for Dec. 11.

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