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Here in America, people pay tens of thousands of dollars to "reputation management firms" that promise to help get rid of embarrassing results that pop up in Google searches of their names. Those in Europe have a different option.In 2014, Europe's highest court established the right to be forgotten by deciding in favor of a Spanish man who didn’t want Google putting news from the 1990s about his debts onto the first page of his results. Because of that ruling, European citizens now have a "right to be forgotten" and can ask that Google remove from their search results websites that are inadequate or irrelevant.
It reflects a different outlook on privacy that exists in Europe compared to the U.S. (If you need an example of how different things are across the sea, consider "celebrity injunctions" in the United Kingdom, one of which is currently being used to keep British newspapers from naming the participants in an extramarital celebrity threesome even as social media and outlets in different countries report the names.) But Europe's attempts to enforce the privacy rights of its citizens have led to some seriously hairy questions about the nature of geographical boundaries online, and whose laws should prevail over the global internet.
Here's how the 'right to be forgotten' has gone over the past two years: Google has removed 600,000 websites from people's search results in Europe since it put up its "Forget Me" form in 2014. At first, Google removed search results for a given country's version of Google. So if you were a French citizen who wanted an ex-boyfriend's insulting blog post about you taken out of your search results, it would disappear, but only for those using Google.fr to search for you.
European countries flipped out about that so Google then started restricting search results for people doing searches who were geolocated inside a given country. So if you were sitting in a Paris coffee shop using Google.com or Google.br to do a search for a French citizen, her delisted results would not appear. But that was still not enough for the countries trying to enforce the law. If the person in the Parisian coffee shop used a VPN, they could pretend to be in the U.S. instead of France and get the supposedly hidden results. France said that Google needed to enforce the right to be forgotten globally, and then fined it for not complying.
The fine was a measly 100,000 euros (or $112,000), which is budget dust for a search engine that makes $19 billion on ad revenue per quarter, but Google (now known as corporate giant Alphabet, but still known to everyone as Google) announced last week that it was fighting the fine. It wants to ensure that France doesn't get to regulate the worldwide internet. It's a worthy, but complicated, fight.
"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," wrote Kent Walker, Google's global general counsel in a blog post. "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."
This is a noble argument, but it is also misleading as to Google's past actions, as pointed out by Julia Powles in the Guardian last year: "Currently, US copyright law is relied on to remove content from Google’s global index, no matter where an alleged incident occurs."
Google was asked by copyright holders to remove 85 million urls from its search results just in the last month. Rights holders trying to kill websites offering up pirated movies, TV shows, music or other copyrighted material invoke the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or DMCA, an oft-abused U.S. law. When Google does choose to remove results, it does so not just for American Google but for Google worldwide. So, in fact, one country is imposing its laws on the rest of the internet.
Google's reasoning there, though, is that copyright protections of some sort exist almost everywhere in the world, while privacy rules vary widely from country to country. We'll see what France thinks. The French appeals court that will be assessing Google's challenge has said it will take "several months" to decide.