MADRID – Google and other search engines shouldn’t be forced to apply the European Union’s “right to be forgotten” beyond the bloc’s borders, an adviser to the EU’s top court argued on Thursday.
The recommendation – if followed by the EU’s Luxembourg-based Court of Justice – would be a major victory for Google, a unit of Alphabet, which has for three years been fighting an order from France’s privacy regulator to apply the EU principle globally.
Maciej Szpunar, an advocate general for the court, argued in Thursday’s nonbinding opinion that if the EU ordered the removal of content from websites accessed outside the EU, there was a danger that other jurisdictions would end up blocking information from being accessible within the EU.
A final decision is expected in coming months from the court, which isn’t obliged to follow an advocate general’s opinion, but often does. No further appeal is possible within the EU.
Google didn’t immediately have any comment.
Backed by an array of free-speech advocates, the tech company has argued that expanding the territorial scope of the right to be forgotten would infringe on other countries’ sovereignty and encourage dictators and tyrants to assert control over content published beyond their countries’ borders. The EU’s executive arm also argued in September that the right shouldn’t be extended overseas.
At issue in the case is the right, established by the court in 2014, for EU residents to demand that search engines remove links containing personal information – such as a home address – from searches for their own names. Under the 2014 ruling, search engines must then balance those requests against the public’s right to associate the information in the link with that individual, taking into account, for instance, whether the person is a public figure.
Since that decision, Google has removed 1.1 million links from search results in the EU. But it has left those links intact for the same searches conducted outside Europe.
In 2015, France’s privacy regulator, CNIL, ordered Google to expand its takedowns to any search for the given individual’s name, regardless of where the searcher is located. CNIL argued that the right to be forgotten is empty if it can be dodged by spoofing one’s location, for instance by connecting to a VPN. The regulator later fined Google 100,000 euros ($115,000) when it didn’t comply.
Google appealed the order in French court, which referred the question to the EU’s Court of Justice.
Thursday’s opinion doesn’t entirely back Google. Szpunar, the advocate general, recommended slightly expanding how Google applies the right to be forgotten, so that it applies uniformly across all Google websites in the EU.
Until now, the search engine has removed results from searches for an individual’s name from all European versions of its website, and from non-EU Google sites when accessed from the EU country as the person who requested removal is located. Google says it does this because standards about removals vary from country to country within the EU.
But the advocate general recommended ordering Google to use the same geolocation technology to remove the results from all Google websites when accessed from any EU country.