12 Comments

Summary:

A court in Canada just told Google it must delete search results from around the world. The ruling is the latest in a troubling series of cases ordering search engines to remove information.

Google search

Where does this stop?

Courts in Europe have been forcing Google to scrub embarrassing search results, and now one in Canada has made an even broader ruling: it ordered the search engine to delete websites not only from the Canadian version of Google, but across the world as well. The decision is part of an alarming trend of disappearing online information.

The Canadian decision, in case you missed it, is about a company that is trying to stop a rival from selling network devices that it claims are the fruit of its stolen trade secrets. As part of its lawsuit, the company wants Google to remove all search results that link to the rival’s more than 300 websites.

In response, the Supreme Court of British Columbia issued a sweeping temporary injunction last week. The injunction matters because it will have a global effect; in less than 14 days, people in Canada will be no longer be able to find the websites in Google, and neither will Google users in other countries.

Local law, global fall-out

At first glance, it’s easy to sympathize with Equustek Solutions, the Canadian company that wants to scrub the search results. After all, if what it says is true, its rival has stolen its technology and is selling it on websites around the world.

Google has no direct role in this, but the company’s services are certainly useful to the rival: in this case, would-be customers looking for the product called “GW-1000″ find the rival’s websites (here’s an example) through the search engine. The rival advertises on Google too.

While Google voluntarily agreed to remove the rival’s search results from “Google.ca,” which is what most Canadians use to surf the web, it refused to do the same for its other sites like “Google.co.uk,” “Google.fr” and, most importantly, Google.com. That led the company to seek an injunction removing the search results from all versions of Google.

Google pointed out to the judge that if she granted such an injunction, she would be imposing Canadian law around the world. The judge was unfazed and said, in effect, “well, we have to keep up with the times.”

Google is an innocent bystander but it is unwittingly facilitating the defendants’ ongoing breaches of this Court’s orders. There is no other practical way for the defendants’ website sales to be stopped [...]

 

The Court must adapt to the reality of e-commerce with its potential for abuse by those who would take the property of others and sell it through the borderless electronic web of the internet. I conclude that an interim injunction should be granted compelling Google to block the defendants’ websites from Google’s search results worldwide. [emphasis added]

(The judge also justified her ruling by pointing to other types of orders, known as Mareva Injunctions and Norwich Orders, which have extra-territorial application for situations involving asset seizures and the discovery process.)

The ruling is good news for the Canadian company in its quest to protect the “GW-1000″ device, but bad news for the rest of us. Google search results are looking like swiss cheese in more and more places, and this new decision won’t help.

A precedent to remove search results for “Jews” or “gays” too?

The British Columbia judge suggested her decision was inspired in part by recent rulings in Europe in which courts said Google must abide by people’s requests to “be forgotten” from its search results. In other words, if Europe can order Google to delete search results, why can’t Canadian courts do the same?

The problem here is not simply that the judge’s order applies beyond Canada’s borders, but that it could also inspire courts in other countries justification to seek extra-territorial powers too. As law professor Michael Geist notes:

“What happens if a Russian court orders Google to remove gay and lesbian sites from its database? Or if Iran orders it remove Israeli sites from the database? The possibilities are endless since local rules of freedom of expression often differ from country to country.”

As I’ve argued before, we’re in dangerous territory here, since scrubbing Google is not only censorship, but effaces history as well. Google, today, is like a library catalogue of available knowledge; while different countries may choose not to make certain knowledge available, people should be able to know it exists in the first place — and the best way they can do so is through Google.

But what about websites that flagrantly violate intellectual property? This is a real problem but blacking out sections of Google is not the right response, especially given how quickly will people will rush to abuse such a process. A better response could be for courts and governments to target the payment and advertising infrastructure that allows illegal sites to flourish, rather than the information system that lets us know they exist in the first place.

Finally, note that Americans will not have to worry about disappearing search results, since the First Amendment’s broad speech protections also apply to Google. The rest of the world, however, could soon start seeing depleted versions of the popular search engine.

If you want to read more about the Canadian case, see lawyer Barry Sookman’s excellent breakdown of the legal issues here.

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12 Comments

  1. Technology backwards countries like Canada and continents like Europe trying to censor an American company.. Good grief. China isn’t even this bad about censorship ffs.

    1. Let’s see here. Europe and EU is not the same. Redo and get it right, please.

      Have you tried search engines in China? Nor have I but my office mate have and that is a big difference.

      Lastly, this court trail sucks in so many ways. Yes, hit where it hurts and gets the guilty ones, ban them from the bank system. It works with “terrorist” money so it should be possible to work here too..

  2. If Canadian courts can apply their law extra-territorially, surely Google can claim the US’s 1st Amendment as a defence in the same vein.

  3. Wow, really? Americans won’t have to worry about disappearing search results?
    Have you never heard of chillingeffects.org?

    1. That’s a good point, nrkatalyst. Copyright’s DMCA regime often does operate as a de facto censorship regime. But at least there’s a way to challenge it

      1. Challenging a DMCA request can very easily end up in court and cost much more than most can afford. So the masses really have very little say in it.

        And don’t forget about our ever secretive government
        US leads world in government removal requests to Google

  4. Jason Lancaster Thursday, June 19, 2014

    The “Google is a historical record” argument doesn’t fly, at least not with me. Libraries archive and store newspapers, but they do so using public funds, volunteers, etc. When you want to look at these archives, you just have to ask.

    Google, on the other hand, merely cataloges and stores information so they can serve ads. Their mission isn’t altruistic or archival in nature. What’s more, there *are* other archives being kept of the internet. Google’s not the only game in town.

    So, summing up, I don’t see how this is censorship. Google isn’t in the business of publishing media, storing it for humanity’s benefit, etc. They’re an advertising company with a very useful tool…they should be regulated accordingly.

    1. Also, the “what if Russia forces Google to do ‘x'” argument didn’t land with me either. Instead of asking what will happen if some petty dictator and/or authoritarian regime forces Google to do something, we *should* be asking why Google is deriving profits in a nation that doesn’t respect human rights.

      Google makes money by monetizing other people’s content, and they have no qualms about co-operating with regimes that ignore all recognized human rights. If Russia tries to force Google to do something that’s obviously wrong, Google should stop doing business in Russia. Period.

      1. Who gets to decide what is “obviously wrong”?

      2. I do agree with this article, and the writer’s opinion on the Canadian judge’s audacity to claim that applying Canadian law worldwide is somehow the equivalent of “keeping up with the times”, and that they’re entitled to do it. (So if every country does that, where does that leave the world? With no internet at all, most likely.) I also think that if we’re going to have Google remove search results at all, that massive violations of an individual person’s (a real human being) privacy or basic rights should be priority over a company or corporation that wants it done so they can make a profit. There’s nothing wrong with making money (generally speaking) in an honest way, and if what this article says is true, and this other company did illegally steal trade secrets and is now profiting from it, that is absolutely wrong. I’m just saying I don’t think we have our priorities straight.

        That said, I do agree with most of your original comment, and when I read the part about censoring Google [I disagree with you on that, it *is* censorship, as much as any other government- or court-ordered removal of search results, particularly on a nationwide or worldwide scale, is censorship] “effacing history” they lost me at that point. The mere fact that Google is “the best way”, according to the article, that people can discover the existence of knowledge and information their government (or local community, or educators, etc.) has prevented them from accessing doesn’t make Google somehow have more significance or importance relative to the OTHER ways a person could achieve the same thing, and it certainly doesn’t make Google an archive of history.

        However, I have serious issues with your second comment.

        (And on a side note – I don’t really want to get into a long discussion or argument about this particular thing, however, I felt compelled to point it out – I sort of have a big problem with you calling dictators and authorization regimes “petty.”)

        You say that instead of asking hypothetical “what-ifs” and achieving nothing by doing so, we should question why Google is allowed to profit in a country that “doesn’t respect human rights.” You go on to talk about Google essentially having no ethical accountability (or you might have been saying something slightly different i.e. the meaning behind your comment wasn’t quite the way I put it – I acknowledge this but my paraphrasing isn’t really important, as I’m focused on what you said before and after that bit) and you use the phrase “all recognized human rights” and “if Russia [does] something that’s obviously wrong.”

        Human rights according to whom? Who wrote this list of “all” the “recognized human rights”? Did the whole world, every nation, sign that list and agree to it? And whose definition of “obviously wrong” things are you using?

        (Okay, unfortunately due to the internet being what it is, I have to interrupt myself here, and make this post even longer, so I can point out that I *am* most definitely aware of the various international declarations and such regarding human rights, the existence of the UN and so forth. That’s not the point I’m making. I’m not denying the existence of such things; I’m making a different argument, please read on.)

        And even if, at minimum, almost all of the more powerful nations in the world all agreed on that list in the context of not allowing people outside the human rights violator countries to profit in/from them, who is responsible for ensuring this “law” is followed?

        Is Google responsible first (as in, given the opportunity to do things the officially determined “right” way on its own), or is it under the control of some regulatory body from the start? If it’s the latter, is that regulatory body an international one, or one in the country where Google is headquartered? (And who makes sure THEY are doing their jobs and following the rules?) And either way, what happens if or when Google doesn’t stop doing things to make money in the applicable countries? Who is responsible for forcing Google to comply? Is there some kind of punishment? Who gets to determine what it is? And whose definition of “fair” do we use for the “fair punishment”, as we would presumably claim it to be? Who is responsible for seeing it’s carried out? Who acts as the judge or arbitrator (or whatever similar entity might apply) for Google’s appeal? (which any group of nations which claim to be the deciders on morality and fairness and such would surely agree must happen)

        Also, does this apply only to Google? What about every other company/business/person that provides some internet service, or some service on the internet, and does so in more than one country and/or does so outside of the country where the real people behind it live and the business is physically based? Do we oversee them and enforce these rules for all of them using the same set of rules and such, which would ultimately require this to be an international & worldwide collaboration (and in such a scenario, we again come back to the ultimate issue of who gets to decide what’s right)? What about companies that DON’T operate on a worldwide scale, but simply in a few countries (but one of those countries is subject to the “you can’t make a profit here until they stop their human rights abuses as indicated in our treaty”)? Should they be forced into the Earth group, or instead answer to a subgroup that operates on a smaller or more local basis, such as one existing for every continent, or for every nation, or for certain group of nations (grouped together geographically, or politically, or culturally, or in some other manner)?

        You see, it’s not so simple. I agree that it would be a better world if Google (and others) didn’t make money (by choice, in the best scenario) in countries like Russia [just using the example that has been given throughout], or countries that allow child brides, or have no protection for women who are raped or assaulted (or even condone it), or who kill people (as in, state-sanctioned executions) for being gay or transgender, or who refuse jobs or access to basic education to people with disabilities, or who dish out capital punishment or put people in prison often to serve life sentences (or sentence them to corporal punishment, like in Singapore) without a fair and unbiased trial first…but unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.

        There are no truly easy answers.

  5. Elliot Nessman Wednesday, July 2, 2014

    Google has become the gatekeepers of the internet – Google more and more is refusing to remove links to websites, posts which cause irreparable harm to companies and individuals whether it be defamation or companies involved in illegal activity.

    By way of google’s 80%+ share of the search engine market, google has become the gatekeepers of the internet. A single company with over 50 billion in revenues decides on behalf of the world what information is accessible on the internet and what is not. This is too much power for one company. The public should be concerned of the overbearing power the Google has.

    The court decision was justified in that the internet is limitless and worldwide and the harm to the company is impacted not only in Canada.

    In Dow Jones & Company Inc. v. Gutnick, [2002] H.C.A. 56 (10 December 2002), that same judge – Kirby J., of the High Court of Australia — portrayed the Internet in these terms, at para. 80:
    The Internet is essentially a decentralized, self-maintained telecommunications network. It is made up of inter-linking small networks from all parts of the world. It is ubiquitous, borderless, global and ambient in its nature. Hence the term “cyberspace”.4 This is a word that recognizes that the interrelationships created by the Internet exist outside conventional geographic boundaries and comprise a single interconnected body of data, potentially amounting to a single body of knowledge. The Internet is accessible in virtually all places on Earth where access can be obtained either by wire connection or by wireless (including satellite) links. Effectively, the only constraint on access to the Internet is possession of the means of securing connection to a telecommunications system and possession of the basic hardware.

  6. Google is NOT an innocent bystander.
    They are a profit making machine that publishes other people’s data.
    Wouldn’t it be amazing if the only place people could find a published work is through the agency that published it.
    Google has given the world a skeleton key to take anything for free and how is it that they should make billions and disclaim all responsibility?