Dec 16, 2014

E.U. Seeks to Take Over the Internet

For a while now I and others have written and spoke about the court decision (summary) earlier this year applying the European Union's conception of the right to privacy, including "the right to be forgotten," to internet search engine results. Now, the European Union is seeking to export the concept worldwide.

In short, the ruling by the European Court of Justice allows non-public figures to request removal of links to material that is "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive ...," as long as there is no overriding public interest in the information being accessible. It does not include the right to request removal of the original online material, only to the search results linking to it.

Technically, the court decision is binding only on the 28 countries of the European Union, and even then is enforceable only as the nations' individual courts adopt the ruling. A French court has already done so, but a court in the Netherlands declined to order removal of links (decision in Dutch). A committee of the U.K. House of Lords criticized the decision, saying “It is no longer reasonable or even possible for the right to privacy to allow data subjects a right to remove links to data which are accurate and lawfully available,” and the Prime Minister largely agreed.

Google reports that it has received more than 186,000 requests seeking removal of more than 670,000 URLs from its search results for its European users, and has honored slightly over 40 percent.

These removals are limited to results from searches on Google's European sites:,, and, for example. All the results are still available through Google's American site,

But now, the E.U. is seeking to apply its privacy standards, and the European court's ruling, worldwide. Last month a committee of data protection ministers of E.U. countries issued guidelines for implementing the ruling, including the statement that
limiting de-listing to EU domains on the grounds that users tend to access search engines via their national domains cannot be considered a sufficient mean to satisfactorily guarantee the rights of data subjects according to the ruling. In practice, this means that in any case de-listing should also be effective on all relevant domains, including .com.
In short, the committee has said, the "right to be forgotten" should apply worldwide.

The guidelines are advisory only, and are subject to implementation by each E.U. countries' designated data protection agency. And the issue is sure to come up as the Council of the European Union considers updates to the E.U.'s data protection rules. And even if the rules were applied to domains outside the European Union, it is unclear how they would be enforced.

Supports of the court's decision emphasize that the right to link removal is not absolute, and that the ruling applies only to search engine links, not the underlying material. But when the vast majority of material online is found through search engines, the ruling effectively puts the information in a "memory hole:" technically available, but essentially inaccessible. As David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, wrote in The Guardian, "It's a bit like saying the book can stay in the library but cannot be included in the library's card catalogue."

The internet is now a vast, worldwide library of information. And while the E.U. nations may decide to allow some restrictions on what can found in this library, they shouldn't have the audacity to impose their restrictions beyond their borders.


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