The US search engine Google has won a European Union court battle against plans to impose a global “right to be forgotten” law, which has tipped the balance in favour of the public’s right to know over privacy and protection concerns.
Tuesday’s ruling means that the EU’s privacy standards don’t have to apply outside its borders.
The European Court of Justice ruled that, while a search engine operator such as Google must carry out “de-referencing” of links as demanded by a regulator or court in an EU state to all European versions of its sites, the “right to be forgotten” need not go any further.
The right to be forgotten was enshrined by the EU’s top court in 2014, when it said Google must delete “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” data from its results when a member of the public requests it.
The US internet giant, backed by tech heavyweights including Microsoft, had argued that the removal of search results required under EU law should not extend to its google.com domain or its other non-EU sites.
Free speech campaigners also worried the case was an attempt by Europe to police a US tech giant beyond the union’s jurisdiction.
Tuesday’s case arose after France’s data protection office (CNIL) fined Google €100,000 for failing to remove links containing damaging or false information about a person across all its domain names – not just those in the EU.
In 2016, Google introduced a geoblocking feature preventing European users from being able to see delisted links, but resisted censoring search results for people in other parts of the world.
The firm argued that such decisions push the internet into dangerous waters and could be abused by authoritarian governments trying to cover up human rights abuses were it to be applied outside of Europe.
“Since 2014, we’ve worked hard to implement the right to be forgotten in Europe, and to strike a sensible balance between people’s rights of access to information and privacy,” the firm said in a statement following the ECJ ruling.
“It’s good to see that the court agreed with our arguments.”
However, the court did stress that de-referencing on EU sites must include measures to “seriously discourage” a European internet user being able to get around the “right to be forgotten” by accessing unrestricted results from a search engine on a non-EU domain.
That demands “geo-blocking”, which Google says it already uses effectively in Europe.
Savvy internet users, however, can get around that measure with a VPN that masks the user’s location, or by going to some non-Google search engines.
National tribunals must now weigh if Google goes far enough with geoblocking efforts to prevent viewers from one location seeing such delisted links.
The case touched on the thorny issues of balancing data privacy and protection concerns against the public’s right to know and was watched closely around the world.
If France had won, it could have deepened a rift between Europe and the United States, which is home to most of the internet’s behemoths and whose President Donald Trump has railed against what he sees as EU meddling in US business.