Google and other search engines shouldn’t be forced to apply the European Union’s “right to be forgotten” beyond the bloc’s borders, an adviser to the EU’s top court said Thursday, citing a potential threat to free expression.
The recommendation, if followed by the EU’s Luxembourg-based Court of Justice, would be a major victory for Google, a unit of
which for three years has been fighting an order from France’s privacy regulator to apply the EU principle globally.
At issue in the case is the right, established by the court in 2014, for EU residents to demand that search engines remove links containing personal information—such as a home address—from searches for their names. Under the 2014 ruling, search engines must balance those requests against the public’s right to access a link associated with the searched-for name, taking into account, for instance, whether the person is a public figure.
Maciej Szpunar, an advocate general for the court, argued in Thursday’s nonbinding opinion that if the EU orders removal of content from websites accessed outside the region, there is a danger that other jurisdictions would use their laws to block information from being accessible within the EU.
“There is a real risk of reducing freedom of expression to the lowest common denominator across Europe and the world,” Mr. Szpunar wrote.
Backed by an array of free-speech advocates, Google has taken a similar position, arguing that expanding the territorial scope of the right to be forgotten would infringe on other countries’ sovereignty and encourage dictators and tyrants to assert control over content published beyond their countries’ borders. The EU’s executive arm also argued in September that the right shouldn’t be extended overseas.
Since the court decision in 2014, Google has removed 1.1 million links from search results in the EU, while leaving the links intact for the same searches conducted outside Europe.
In 2015, France’s privacy regulator, CNIL, ordered Google to expand its takedowns to any search for the given individual’s name, regardless of where the searcher is located. CNIL argued that the right to be forgotten is empty if it can be dodged by spoofing one’s location, for instance by connecting to a VPN. The regulator later fined Google €100,000 ($115,000) when it didn’t comply.
Google appealed the order in a French court, which referred the question to the EU’s Court of Justice.
A final decision is expected in coming months from the court, which isn’t obliged to follow an advocate general’s opinion, but often does. No further appeal is possible within the EU.
Thursday’s opinion didn’t entirely back Google. Mr. Szpunar recommended slightly expanding how Google applies the right to be forgotten to make its application uniform across all Google websites in the EU.
Currently, Google removes results from searches for an EU resident’s name when conducted via EU versions of its site. It also does takedowns from non-EU versions of its site, but only if the search is conducted from within the country of the EU resident who requested the removals.
The advocate general recommended ordering Google to remove results from searches for an EU resident’s name on any version of Google when accessed from any EU country.
Write to Sam Schechner at firstname.lastname@example.org