Google is fighting a big, messy battle over whether expanding the 'right to be forgotten' amounts to censorship

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Sundar PichaiJustin Sullivan/Getty ImagesGoogle CEO Sundar Pichai.

  • Google is currently fighting a big battle in the EU's top court about whether people's "right to be forgotten" should apply globally to its search engine.
  • The right means private citizens in Europe can ask Google and other search engines to scrub certain unflattering results about them.
  • France's data protection agency said Google only deletes results from its EU search engines, and that the information is still visible on non-EU domains.
  • Google argued on Tuesday that applying the rule globally would impinge on people's right to free expression.

Most people outside Europe don't know much about the digital "right to be forgotten," the idea that private citizens can ask search engines to scrub certain search results about them.

It's a comparatively new idea, but a landmark ruling in 2014 from the European Court of Justice set the initial parameters of how it might apply. That ruling said search engines like Google could be forced to delete results.

That ruling is at the center of a thorny battle between Google and France's data protection agency, CNIL, which is arguing that the right to be forgotten should apply to search engine results globally, not just locally.

According to CNIL's complaint, Google does delete (or "delist") some results from private citizens when requested. But its main bone of contention is that Google isn't delisting the results everywhere - only on Google France and other EU versions of its search engine. Some delisted information, CNIL said, was still visible on non-EU versions of Google.

On Tuesday, Google shot back at a hearing before 15 EU judges and said expanding the right to be forgotten globally would impinge on freedom of speech.

Bloomberg reported that Google's counsel, Patrice Sinosi, described CNIL's proposals as "very much out on a limb" and in "utter variance" with other judgments.

Google isn't alone in arguing that deleting search results might equate to censorship. A number of media organisations including BuzzFeed, Reuters, The New York Times, and various nonprofits have argued the same.

Thomas Hughes, executive director of freedom of expression group Article 19, said: "This case could see the right to be forgotten threatening global free speech.

"European data regulators should not be allowed to decide what Internet users around the world find when they use a search engine. The CJEU must limit the scope of the right to be forgotten in order to protect the right of Internet users around the world to access information online."

You can read the case documents here.

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