On Tuesday, in a courtroom in Luxembourg, the Court of Justice of the European Union is to consider whether Google must enforce the “right to be forgotten” — which requires search engines to erase search results based on European law — everywhere in the world.
Unfortunately, the chances are pretty good that Google will lose — that the court will order the company to make certain information harder to find. For example, if you are in the United States and you use Google to search for a New York Times article that has been removed from European versions of the search engine, that article will no longer appear in your results.
We’ve come a long way from the 1990s, when the internet evangelist John Perry Barlow, in his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” asserted that governments “have no sovereignty” online. These days, many critics call for more state intervention online, to curb the spread of disinformation and other internet-borne harms, and to limit the power of platforms like Google and Facebook to shape political discourse. Those are legitimate concerns, and rightly the subject of debate.
We should be equally worried, however, about the prospect of platforms like Google and Facebook, with their international reach and pervasive role in our lives, doing the bidding of governments around the world.
The “right to be forgotten” dispute is a relatively modest one — a matter of differing priorities between the United States and Europe, which otherwise share the values of privacy and free expression. But in other parts of the world, speech prohibitions can be far more extreme. If the online platforms we depend on — not just Google, but also Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, WordPress, Cloudflare and more — were to globally enforce, say, Saudi Arabia’s blasphemy laws or Turkey’s law against insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the internet would change beyond recognition.
For now, very few countries are asking online platforms to enforce their national laws elsewhere. And the courts that are considering worldwide removal orders mostly sit in democratic and rights-respecting countries. That should give us some hope for better outcomes in those cases. But it also means that their decisions will carry a lot of weight, and set expectations for other national courts and lawmakers about their own power to make platforms globally remove content.
Read the full piece at The New York Times.