European officials are pushing an idea that will encourage autocrats everywhere to demand greater censorship on the Internet. They want companies like Google and Microsoft to abide by the European Union’s recently recognized legal principle of a “right to be forgotten” not just in the 28 countries of the union but everywhere.
In May, the European Court of Justice ruled that individuals could ask Internet search sites to remove links to web pages that contained “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” information about them in the results page for searches of their names. Google, which is the dominant search engine in Europe, has removed more than 250,000 links since that ruling.
But the company says it only removes links from results displayed on its websites for European countries like Google.fr in France or Google.de in Germany but not from results on its non-European sites, including Google.com, the primary site in the United States. European policy makers say this approach fails to protect the “right to be forgotten” because it is easy for people to search on Google.com or using virtual private networks to find links that are not displayed in their countries.
As a result, European regulators and judges are demanding that Google and other companies remove links covered by the right-to-be-forgotten principle from all results pages in all countries and regardless of where the search takes place. This would allow Europeans to decide what information citizens of every other nation can access. Google has, so far, refused to comply with these demands, but it may find it harder to resist once European officials enshrine the right to be forgotten into law, which officials are negotiating now.
The European position is deeply troubling because it could lead to censorship by public officials who want to whitewash the past. It also sets a terrible example for officials in other countries who might also want to demand that Internet companies remove links they don’t like. For example, the military government of Thailand could decide that it wants Facebook and Twitter to remove content that runs afoul of that country’s strict lèse-majesté law everywhere in the world. Autocratic leaders like Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey might feel emboldened to try to silence critics not just in their own countries but elsewhere by levying fines on Internet businesses or blocking their websites entirely.
European officials argue that it is unfair to liken the right to be forgotten to attempts to muzzle free speech in other countries. After all, the European Union is trying to protect the privacy of individuals, not squelch public debate. But if European regulators get their way, Internet companies would be left in the awkward position of determining when government requests to censor information universally are legitimate and when it is not. No business should have that power.
Note EU-Digest: The usually quite accurate NY Times in this editorial is completely off track and is comparing apples and pears. As the EU stated: the right to be forgotten is not an attempt to muzzle free speech in other countries. After all, the European Union is trying to protect the privacy of individuals, not squelch public debate. What it attempts to doin this case is to stop Social Media and other corporate entities to sell, circulate, or distribute, personal information of private EU citizens to third parties,without their prior consent.
Read more: Europe’s Expanding ‘Right to Be Forgotten’ - NYTimes.com