French Regulators: Google Must Apply 'Right to Be Forgotten' Globally

Google’s obligations under the European Union’s "right to be forgotten" mandate apply worldwide, France’s CNIL says.

Google's global reach

France's main data protection authority, CNIL (Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés, has given Google 15 days to start applying EU's "right to be forgotten" (RTBF) mandate on search results worldwide, or face potential sanctions.

In a June 12 statement, CNIL said it has formally asked Google to start delisting links to search results on all of its domains worldwide when the company responds to RTBF requests from EU residents. Currently, Google applies the mandate only to search results that appear within the EU.

If Google fails to comply within the specified period, the CNIL would consider imposing a sanction on the company, the data regulator warned.

Google did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

The RTBF mandate allows EU residents to ask Google and other search engine providers to remove links in search results pointing to articles about them that are inaccurate, incomplete, defamatory or outdated. The mandate stemmed from a lawsuit filed by a resident of Spain who wanted Google to remove links to two articles that he claimed were unfair and defamatory to his character.

Google has agreed to abide by the mandate and claims that it has, in fact, accommodated tens of thousands of link-removal requests from EU residents. The company's Transparency Report shows that since the mandate went into effect in May 2014, Google has received more than 269,000 link-removal requests and evaluated close to 1 million URLs for removal.

The company said it has acceded to link-removal requests in 58.7 percent of the cases while denying removal requests in the remaining 41.3 percent. Instances where Google has removed links include requests from people accused of serious crimes but later exonerated, or people jailed for petty crimes or from rape victims.

One major sticking point though has been the manner in which Google has applied the mandate so far. The company has argued that RTBF only applies to search results that are visible to people inside EU when they conduct searches using Google. When the company delists links in response to a RTBF request, it has done so only with links that are visible to users in Europe while leaving links on its main domain intact. So while a user in Europe may not see a link to an offending article inside Europe, users in the rest of the world would still see it and be able to click on it.

EU data regulators and privacy watchdogs have described the company's position as disingenuous and unhelpful and have been urging Google to apply the mandate in the spirit it was intended. Regulators meeting in Brussels last November considered a proposal that would extend Google's privacy obligations under RTBF to domains outside the EU.

Recently, a group of 80 academicians, law professors and researchers from several leading universities in Europe and the United States sent an open letter asking for more transparency from the company on its processes for agreeing to or rejecting RTBF requests. They have asked Google to provide more context around the quantity and quality of the links it has removed or refused to remove.

Google itself has argued that laws like RTBF unfairly force search engine companies to make judgment calls on content posted online by others. It has argued that mandates like this can easily be misused to censor free speech if not applied carefully.

In its statement Friday, the CNIL said it has received "hundreds of complaints" from people over Google's refusal to delist links in response to RTBF requests.

"Following the assessment of the complaints, the CNIL has requested Google to carry out the delisting of several results," the CNIL said. "It was expressly requested that the delisting should be effective on whole search engine, irrespective of the extension used (.fr, .uk, .com …)," it said in the statement.

Though Google has granted some of the requests, it has only done so with respect to European extensions of the search engine and not when searches are made via or from other countries. "The CNIL considers that in order to be effective, delisting must be carried out on all extensions of the search engine and that the service provided by Google search constitutes a single processing."

The latest French ultimatum adds to Google's woes in Europe. The Competition Office at the European Commission, which is responsible for ensuring fair trade practices in Europe recently served Google with a formal "statement of objections" over the company's alleged anti-competitive behavior in Europe. Such statements of objections have typically been precursors to formal antitrust charges being filed against companies in Europe in the past.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.