France’s Guillotining of Global Free Speech Continues

The war between France and Google — with France demanding that Google act as a global censor, and Google appealing France’s edicts — shows no signs of abating, and the casualty list could easily end up including most of this planet’s residents.

As soon as the horrific “Right To Be Forgotten” (RTBF) concept was initially announced by the EU, many observers (including myself) suspected that the “end game” would always be global censorship, despite efforts by Google and others to reach agreements that could limit EU censorship to the EU itself.

This is the heart of the matter. France — and shortly we can be sure a parade of such free speech loathing countries like Russia, China, and many others — is demanding that Google remove search results for third-party materials on a global basis from all Google indexes around the world.

What this means is that even though I’m sitting right here in Los Angeles, if I dare to write a completely accurate and USA-legal post that the French government finds objectionable, France is demanding the right to force Google (and ultimately, other search engines and indexes) to remove key references to my posting from Google and other search results. For everyone. Everywhere. Around the world. Because of … France.

It’s nonsensical on its face but incredibly dangerous. It’s a dream of every dictator and legions of bureaucrats down through history, brought to a shiny 21st century technological reality.

You don’t have to be a computer scientist to realize that if every country in the world has a veto power over global search results, the lightspeed race to the lowest common denominator of sickly search results pablum would make Einstein’s head spin.

Proponents of these censorship regimes play the usual sorts of duplicitous word games of censorship czars throughout history. They claim it’s for the good of all, and that it’s not “really” censorship since “only” search results are involved.

Well here’s something you can take to the bank. Let’s leave aside for the moment the absolute truth that — given the enormous scale of the Web — hiding search results is effectively largely the same as hiding most source content itself as far as most people are concerned. But even if we ignore this fact, the truth of the matter is that it won’t be long before these same governments are also demanding the direct censorship of source material websites as well as search results.

However small the “forbidden information” leakage past the censorship of search results themselves, government censors will never be satisfied. They never are. In the history of civilization, they’ve never been satisfied.

A grand irony of course is that the very rise of Internet technology has been the potential enabler of centrally-mandated censorship to a degree never imagined even twenty years ago. For those of us who’ve spent our professional lives working to build these systems to foster the open spread of information, seeing our technologies turned into the tools of tyrants is disheartening to say the least.

It is however encouraging that firms like Google are continuing to fight the good fight against governments’ censorship regimes. Frankly, it will take firms on the scale of Google — along with support by masses of ordinary folks like us — to have any chance at all of keeping France and other governments around the world from turning the Internet into their own personal information control fiefdoms.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Why Free Speech Is Even More Important Than Privacy

13 thoughts on “France’s Guillotining of Global Free Speech Continues”

  1. This is a classic instance of the inherent conflict between privacy and free speech.

    Before the Internet and Google, much of our “privacy” was simply implemented by the difficulty of obtaining what is otherwise publicly available information. Still, it was a form of privacy which, if it were abused, might legitimately be the object of an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit. For the most part, though, there wasn’t a frequent collision between privacy and freedom of speech.

    So now that technology has changed all that, how do we resolve these conflicts when they arise (which is, now, very frequently)? I do think we have a conflict: privacy is, in my opinion, equal in importance to freedom of speech. The art of law is in drawing clear lines that, while they are necessarily compromises, maximize the benefit to society of each of these fundamental rights. Public figures are considered to have forfeit most (but not all) of their right to privacy. And free speech must stop when it involves actual injury (especially physical and genuine emotional injury) to non-public figures (is bullying that leads to a suicide protected free speech? Clearly, there was injury.).

    The original cases in France that brought the matter to the present point specifically involved injury – emotional and financial – to private individuals. Whether France has drawn the line at an appropriate point (or even if a common point can exist across different cultures) can be debated. But the fact that there is true conflict and need for clarification by carefully crafted law shouldn’t be debated. There is no universal, unlimited right to free speech that trumps privacy and freedom from injury, as this piece seems to imply. In fact, the word “privacy” doesn’t appear a single time in the article. There’s no acknowledgment that it is a fundamental right or that it could be in conflict with free speech.

    As to the difficulties of international law, or the technical impracticality (even impossibility) of implementing France’s demands, or the seemingly frivolous nature of some complaints, these are side issues to the point that there is a legitimate debate about conflicts among fundamental rights that this post doesn’t discuss.

    One last thing: Google is presented as a defender of free speech, but let’s not forget that Google isn’t a charity. Everything they do is in support of their revenue stream, and a lot of their behavior hides behind a free speech position, while not being all that altruistic at all.

    1. I’m a bit confused as to why “being a charity” should — as you seem to imply — be a prerequisite for defending free speech (I don’t know of any charities with the resources to fight government censorship regimes!) but let’s put that aside for now and just cut to the chase, in the form of a couple of a few simple questions.

      First, would you agree that RTBF will never ultimately satisfy government censors, given that the “offending” information is still on the original servers, and that censoring search results is essentially pandering to voters (while the same governments pursue their own massive surveillance regimes against their own citizens)?

      Secondly, what is your proposed mechanism to prevent governments around the world from demanding the removal of search results that are “inconvenient” for them politically, in religious terms, or in other ways — leading to a race to the bottom of massive censorship?

      And finally, what possible legal basis can exist for the government of country X to demand that third-party material in country Y be censored on a global basis? I don’t know of one.


  2. There’s nothing that prevents a for-profit enterprise from fighting for fundamental rights, but we should be aware of their motivation – it’s not out of a love of freedom – that can taint what they fight for, leaving some important aspects of freedom undefended while they pursue their profit-improving agenda. To what extent do we believe that gun manufacturers are fighting for Second Amendment freedom, as opposed to the handsome profits that they reap by putting a gun in right and left hand of every schoolchild?

    As to censorship, there’s very little of what we Americans would think of as “censorship” that goes on in countries like the UK, France or Germany, and yet they all prohibit hate speech – the kind of speech that facilitates the rise of people like Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. I’m not saying that I agree with their laws, here, but their laws have been carefully crafted to prevent their application from veering into areas that Americans somehow fear irrationally. Why is that that you can see a naked breast any day of the year on French television or in newspapers, but not on network TV or the mainstream press in the US? We are quite far from free of hypocrisy where censorship is concerned. But it hasn’t resulted in the downfall of the Republic, so far.

    Again, it’s clear that it is currently impossible to implement RTBF as written, but that doesn’t mean that it will always be impossible. Technology makes incredible, unexpected progress every day. A law that’s today unenforceable isn’t, for that reason, a candidate for repeal. And as to how to administer such a law when oppressive regimes will demand removal of content … that’s where “carefully crafted” comes in. I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve seen a lot of good laws that deal with difficult situations successfully. Not perfectly, but successfully. Deciding that any law like RTBF is impossible to enforce fairly and, therefore, a priori a bad law is not giving legislators and courts any credit. If everything were so clean and clear that any dolt could distinguish right from wrong, we’d hardly need any of them.

    Your last question is clearly one that has no answer, today, and may never have an answer (the UN is nice, but hardly has any teeth). If the French decided that they were going to somehow prevent offending content from ever reaching inside of France, they could try to do something about it (good luck). What makes more sense is for them to get a good balance with excellent legislation that becomes a model (upon which improvement can and should occur) for other countries until most of the countries that matter adopt similar laws.

    Again, choosing to oppose such legislation a priori is naively pretending that somehow privacy isn’t worth protecting when it conflicts with free speech. Laws that are difficult to write can be some of the best laws a country can have. If you lived under an oppressive regime, and somebody who didn’t like you got hold of and published obsolete information about you that the regime used to imprison and torture you, you’d have some second thoughts about whether the violation of your privacy was worth it to guarantee your enemy’s right to free speech. Make no mistake: this is a prime motivation for protection of privacy, and not just under oppressive regimes, but in any country where a person’s enemies can do serious damage with information that is now trivially easy to obtain, but may not be relevant (or used fairly).

    An example that has emerged just recently in the US is the attempt by anti-abortion groups to publish the names and addresses of every employee of Planned Parenthood, in the hope that they (the PP employees) will be harassed or maybe even injured or killed, thereby discouraging anyone for working for that organization. To what degree is the intent to put a person in harm’s way protected by the First Amendment?

    1. If you’re actually attempting to equate motivations for free speech with those of producing devices specifically designed to kill human beings, we’re not going to get anywhere in this discussion.

      It’s also important to remember that corporations are made up of individuals, and the fact of the matter is that you won’t find a firm anyplace where the individual employees believe more strongly in favor of free speech than at Google. Nor does your implied logic make sense suggesting that if somehow Google did not generate a profit from information processing they then wouldn’t be in favor of free speech.

      Europe has been a clear demonstration of the fallacies of censorship. First, we can leave aside your “breasts” example, since in reality you can access exactly the same material both there and here in the U.S. The FCC rules regarding broadcast TV and radio cover only a tiny fraction of today’s media landscape — they are effectively irrelevant.

      But Europe has indeed shown the horrific effects of politically oriented censorship. Their “hate speech” laws have driven most such materials underground to fester (though in practice much is still right out there in the open) and the rise of new right-wing nationalism in Europe demonstrates the utter futility of their censorship efforts in that regard.

      Your attempt to conflate “righteousness” with technical realities fails quite dramatically.

      The only development that could make what you call “progress” would be some form of total, centralized control of the Internet globally of the sort that China attempts (with a great deal of leakage even there, edicts mostly enforced with draconian penalties). I believe you’d find that any push globally in that direction would trigger a technological war of the sort we’ve never seen before.

      The reasons to oppose these kinds of politically-motivated laws from the start involve an understanding of the technological realities — and perhaps even more to the point — an understanding of history. Efforts at censorship always follow the same basic path, whether in the caves or on the Net. We need not wait for the conflagration to know that it inevitably will come.

      Finally, while we can (and should) roundly condemn the actions of the anti-abortion activists that you noted, just as I’ve condemned the actions of “researchers” who scraped and then recently released mass data from an online dating site, our condemnations do not alter the underlying technical realities and public information that makes such unethical actions possible. That’s just the intractable reality, and attempts to pretend that this reality doesn’t exist do not advance the ball in a positive direction at all.


  3. Your arguments are not flawed, but you, for some reason, refuse to consider that somebody can have an opinion that privacy is as fundamental a right, to some people, as free speech, and that they can sometimes be in conflict. You give free speech unconditional priority, and see no circumstances under which it should be constrained in any way, regardless of what other fundamental rights must be sacrificed.

    I will accept that this is a difference of opinion. Having lived in both Europe and the US, my opinion is that privacy is sometimes more important than free speech. And freedom from personal injury is more important than freedom of speech (to me). When Google, Facebook, and others start getting interested in my privacy and safety, I’ll be more inclined to think that the beliefs of Google employees have any bearing on the policies established by their executives. You can be 150% sure that if measures to enhance privacy could generate more revenue, they would be beating the drums to make it happen.

    1. Privacy is enormously important. It’s one of my specialties — I started and continue to run one of the Net’s first privacy groups — The PRIVACY Forum — since back in the early 90s. But when you come down to it, free speech is even more important, because under censorship you may not even know what information is being hidden from you that could be directly damaging your privacy! In other words, with censorship regimes, you “don’t know what you don’t know” — and that’s a disaster for privacy. I also await your proposal for a system that would permit arbitrary countries to demand the removal of arbitrary information on a global basis without turning into a race to the bottom even under the best of conditions, even if we didn’t have our current toxic political climate.

  4. Unfortunately, we will never be able to legislate (and probably never be able to create an algorithm) that embodies a concept as ambiguous as “discretion.”

  5. I will immediately snatch your rss feed as I can’t find your e-mail subscription link or newsletter service. Do you’ve any? Kindly permit me understand so that I may subscribe.


  6. You have to be fair about this – if you were M. Hollande and you’d come into power on an allegedly socialist, pro-poor, anti-austerity platform and then tanked the French economy and reversed every policy promise you’d made before taking power, you wouldn’t want the truth hanging over you forever, would you?

    Hollande not only bought the war-profiteering neoliberal farm, he invented entire new crops to grow in it – he needed an external threat to distract attention from the mess he made of the French economy so he decided to bomb Syria, which is popular amongst the failed European membership; bombing Syria provoked the terrorist attacks on France and gave Hollande the opportunity to start closing down democracy in France so he could force through ultra-capitalism.

    Talk about Tsipras being worse than the governments he replaced, Hollande seems set to tear out every socially progressive policy the French ever implemented! When it comes time for history to piss on the corpse of Hollande’s political career, of course he wants the internet cleansed of all traces of what he really did to France, and to bury all traces of his corporate Petainism…

    1. Your assertions are so far from reality (and I’m not defending Hollande – he has been an absent and counterproductive president in too many ways), that they can only have been made by someone who has never lived in France, and understands little or nothing about what motivates the French. You’d need to back up these wild, vacuous claims with at least some pointers to supporting material (from within France, not Fox News or World Weekly News). I point you to virtually any issue of Le Monde or even Le Figaro (a conservative newspaper) for a more balanced assessment of Hollande and RTBF.

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