Google has won a long-standing battle with European Union (EU) regulators, after the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that Google can limit the scope of the so-called “right-to-be-forgotten” (RTBF) requests to searches made within the EU.
Today’s announcement was largely expected, given that an adviser to EU’s top court backed Google’s case back in January — ECJ judges normally follow the advice given by the advocate general. But now it’s official, meaning that Google and others will only have to delist search results from search engines inside the EU’s perimeters.
“The Court concludes that, currently, there is no obligation under EU law, for a search engine operator who grants a request for de-referencing made by a data subject, as the case may be, following an injunction from a supervisory or judicial authority of a Member State, to carry out such a de-referencing on all the versions of its search engine,” the ECJ said in a press release.
The RTBF ruling dates back to 2014, and was intended to help people and companies delist specific web pages that contain irrelevant, out-of-date, or potentially “damaging” information. In the intervening years, Google has received millions of de-indexing requests, though it has said that less than 45% have been fulfilled. Initially, RTBF applied to all EU countries, meaning that any constituent member could file a request for a web page to be de-indexed from from European versions of search engines — such as Google.fr (France) or Google.co.uk (U.K.). However, in 2015 France’s privacy watchdog ordered Google to expand the RTBF program’s scope to include all of its search properties around the world, meaning that even if someone searched for a phrase on Google.com or Google.ca, the results would also not show up.
In 2016, Google was fined $110,000 by French officials for not complying with its ruling, which kickstarted a three-year appeals process whereby Google escalated the case all the way through to Europe’s highest court in Luxembourg. “As a matter of both law and principle, we disagree with this demand [to hide results globally],” noted Google’s global general counsel, Kent Walker, in a statement at the time. “We comply with the laws of the countries in which we operate.”
Elsewhere in Europe, Google continues to face the wrath of regulators. Back in January, it was hit with a $57 million fine by France for a failure to comply with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) regulations, and a further $1.69 billion fine over alleged AdSense antitrust abuses. And last year, Google was hit with a record $5 billion fine by EU antitrust regulators over the way it bundled its services on Android, effectively forcing phonemakers to preinstall certain Google apps to gain access to others.
Today’s announcement represents not only a rare victory for Google in Europe, but also freedom-of-speech advocates who argued that this case was a pivotal moment for the global web. Indeed, a number of organizations have come out in support of Google since the beginning of this case, including Microsoft — which has had its own de-indexing battles to contend with in Europe — and Wikipedia’s parent the Wikimedia Foundation. At the crux of the issue has been whether one country (or group of countries) should be able to dictate what content is available to other people elsewhere in the world.
“No single nation should attempt to control what information the entire world may access,” noted Wikimedia’s legal counsel Aeryn Palmer, in a 2016 statement. “This case would fundamentally undermine the Wikimedia vision of a world where every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.”