France drives home global 'right to be forgotten'

Mar 25, 2016, 2:47 PM EDT
Stack of the first 20 results of a Google image search for 'eiffel'. (Source: Alexandre Hamada Possi/flickr)
Stack of the first 20 results of a Google image search for 'eiffel'. (Source: Alexandre Hamada Possi/flickr)

Google has struggled to accommodate Europe’s intensifying call for protecting people on the internet -- the controversial "right to be forgotten" law -- while trying to maintain its own policies. But it looks as though the web giant is losing the battle in France, where regulators have slammed the company with a fine for not extending the data-scrubbing mandate to international websites.

France’s data protection watchdog fined Google $112,000 on Thursday for failing to comply with demands to extend the ruling across every regional domain. Meaning, France wants the scrubbing of results in France to be unsearchable and undiscoverable on all of Google’s sites, not just The country made this mandate last year, and Google has been arguing against it ever since, namely by challenging the theory behind it: What are the risks of forcing other countries to abide by one country’s rules? Does it limit people’s freedom of expression to restrict their search results in other countries based on one country’s mandate? Google's point here is that if France is allowed to control what users around the world see, it sets a dangerous precedent for censorship on a global scale, especially considering how strict other countries’ censorship laws can be.

The CNIL — France’s data privacy agency — said in a translated statement that Google works off of the assumption that there are "as many ‘Google Search’ processing systems as local search extensions, whereas in reality, it is a single processing system with multiple technical paths." And it goes on to explain how all the means of using a search engine are operations that "use the same processing system." (Indeed, circumventing French domains is as easy to do as it is anywhere else using virtual private networks (VPNs).) 

The French regulator has caught on to Google's workaround, and is now insisting that Google should scrub data from every search site, not just France’s domain, noting that any user can access de-listed web pages by carrying out the search using non-European extensions of Google. 

It’s safe to say that the "right to be forgotten" is more than just a thorn in Google’s side at this point. It might just behoove the company to fork over the fine, especially because $112,000 is chump change for the search giant. But it’s more symbolic than anything else, and one wonders: how far will France take its crackdown on the "right to be forgotten”?