March 28, 2016

Google Questions & Unofficial Answers: "Is it true that France and other countries are now demanding the right to censor Google Search Results for everyone, everywhere on Earth? Isn't this 'Right To Be Forgotten' stuff getting out of hand?"

(This is a new entry from my recently formed Google+ Community "Google Questions & Unofficial Answers" -- located at: )

Man, oh man. To use the vernacular, "You ain't just whistling Dixie!" Yes and yes, the "Right To Be Forgotten" (RTBF) is going completely off the rails, and the French government is indeed now claiming that it has the power to control what Google users see around the the entire globe. But it's actually even worse than that. Much worse. Because other countries have already or will soon follow France's lead, triggering the most expansive and potentially damaging quagmire of censorship in the history of civilization -- a "race to the bottom" aimed at destroying free speech planetwide.

Of course, no country openly frames this as an attack on freedom of speech per se. Rather, they employ arguments such as claiming that they're trying to protect their citizens from "unfair" or "unflattering" third-party materials on the Internet (and by the way, irrespective of whether those materials are actually accurate or not).

Note that in the RTBF context these governments are not usually trying to block access to those actual Web pages containing the "undesirable" content. Rather, they've been aiming at search engines -- mainly Google to date -- in a disingenuous attempt to "hide" such pages by making them difficult to locate, even though they still exist and could be accessed if you knew the appropriate URLs.

Much like a prudish librarian who couldn't find a way to actually pull from shelves those books of which she didn't approve, and so settled instead on destroying the library catalog index cards that located those books, European Union (EU) countries and now a growing cavalcade of other nations are trying to "disappear" third-party search results from Google.

One of the basic tenets of government censorship -- likely reaching back to the caveman smearing out cave wall drawings that he found objectionable -- is that censorship virtually always expands to suck ever more oxygen out of free speech over time.

We can clearly see this phenomenon with RTBF, in ways that many observers (including myself) have long predicted would come to pass.

Without getting into all the legal definitions and details here, Google has to obey the laws in countries where it operates. But Google also has an interest -- both to protect itself and its users around the world -- in pushing back when any given country tries imposing conditions that actually exceed the statutory rights of that country, especially in the kinds of international contexts in which large Internet firms operate today. After all, why should the government of Country A have the right to dictate censorship over the populations of countries B through Z?

So when the EU began formulating policies for submission, processing, and determinations regarding RTBF requests, Google initially implemented a procedure for removing the results for approved requests from the individual location-specific versions of Google Search that users in those countries access by default (e.g., for France, that's

Almost immediately, EU censorship czars starting expanding their censorship demands. They began complaining that their citizens still had the ability to access other countries' localized versions of Google Search -- and to access the primary international itself -- as workarounds to find search results that their own governments deemed inappropriate for their delicate sensibilities.

Recently, Google agreed to go a step further to satisfy the continuing Orwellian demands of these governments, by actually blocking users in those countries from directly accessing other localized or the non-localized versions of Google, based on those users' origin IP addresses.

But (you guessed it!) France instantly started complaining yet again. They declared that Google's new restrictions weren't good enough, because French citizens could still use tools such as proxies and virtual private networks (VPNs) -- the same kinds of tools that oppressed people around the world use to bypass an array of tyrannical government Internet restrictions -- to see those verboten Google search results on the "forbidden" versions of Google Search.

This brings us to today, with France going even further. They're now asserting the right to force Google to remove search results essentially on demand for all versions of Google Search, around the entire planet. In other words, France claims the right to be the Internet censor not only for France, but for every other country as well, and so for the entire Earth's population.

In fact, it's not just France pushing this nightmarish vision. Early in the discussions of RTBF, the EU was already suggesting that they'd eventually want to move in this same direction. And countries like Russia and China -- both of whom already operate extensive domestic censorship regimes -- are following suit, practically drooling at the idea of globally removing Google Search results that are embarrassing or otherwise potentially disruptive to their dictatorial governments.

An Internet where each individual domestic government asserts the right to impose its own ideas of censorship on a global basis is intolerable, all the more so since we now depend on the Internet not only for so much of our communications in general, but for freedom of speech in particular -- with search engines like Google's being absolutely crucial to this entire Internet ecosystem. The result would inevitably be a "lowest common denominator" disaster for speech freedoms everywhere.

Again, all of this was predictable and predicted. The slippery slope was obvious from the very start. When Wile E. Coyote races off the end of a cliff while chasing the Road Runner, the fact that he remains suspended in midair for a few seconds doesn't mean that he won't shortly be taking the long fall down to the canyon floor.

Unless we put a stop to the expanding, increasingly abusive government censorship represented by the "Right To Be Forgotten" and other similar efforts rising around the world, free speech -- and all of us -- are in for a very painful and damaging fall indeed.

Be seeing you.

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

Posted by Lauren at March 28, 2016 08:50 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein