The French data watchdog had gone to the European Court of Justice to establish whether it could force companies such as Google to de-list search results across the world under the right to be forgotten (RTBF) law.
Google and France’s data regulator, the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertes (CNIL) argued whether data should only be removed within France or if it should be de-listed on every Google domain.
The CNIL said that globally enforcing the removal was the only way to actually uphold the RTBF, but Google warned that this could risk making it breaking the law in other jurisdictions.
The opinion by advocate general Maciej Szpunar, published today, is likely to play a big part in the ECJ’s ruling in the ongoing legal battle.
It says that while requests under the RTBF must be recognised by companies such as Google, they should only apply to people searching for them within the EU.
Peter Fleischer, the senior privacy counsel at Google, said: “Public access to information, and the right to privacy, are important to people all around the world, as demonstrated by the number of global human rights, media and other organisations that have made their views known in this case.
“We’ve worked hard to ensure that the right to be forgotten is effective for Europeans, including using geolocation to ensure 99% effectiveness,” Mr Fleischer added.
Thomas Hughes, the executive director of British free speech organisation Article 19, said: “We welcome [Mr] Szpunar’s opinion that the CJEU should place limits on the scope of de-referencing carried out by search engines.
“European data regulators should not be able to determine the search results that internet users around the world get to see.
“They should only be able to de-list websites within their country’s jurisdiction, and should balance the rights of both privacy and free speech when making that decision.”
Michele Finc, a senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Innovation, wrote that the judgment would have “pronounced implications in the field of internet regulation”.
However, she added: “It is also worth noting that there are other uncertainties concerning the RTBF, including the precise meaning of ‘erasure’, which is not defined in EU data protection law.”
Ms Finc noted that as an enforcer of EU law, Google’s application of the RTBF could turn it into an “exporter” of EU law abroad.
This wasn’t simply a good thing, despite the EU’s higher standards of rights protection than many other parts of the world – because it could also invite more restrictive jurisdictions to force companies to engage in restrictive behaviours.
Google had also argued that it would establish a dangerous precedent for authoritarian regimes to demand that it modify its search results.
Despite this concern about facilitating authoritarian regimes, Google staff are currently in protest at the company’s management over plans to re-enter the Chinese market.
The company’s new Chinese search engine “will blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest” according to reports.