France, you do not own the internet

By trying to extend the right to be forgotten beyond its borders, France is interfering with other nations’ sovereignty

There is a reason it is called the World Wide Web: It is supposed to be worldwide, allowing people from all countries to use it for communication, commerce and self-expression. But the French government is trying to create unilateral internet policies that affect those outside French borders, setting up potential conflicts.

In March 2016, French authorities fined Google €100,000 for not expanding France’s “right to be forgotten” rules to all Google users worldwide. Last week, Google announced that it would continue to fight this decision, arguing that sovereign nations should not be able to create their own internet policies. The debate over the right to be forgotten serves as a useful example of why it is time nations adopt a framework for international internet policymaking that balances their own domestic rights with respect for the global nature of the internet.

The Google-France conflict arises from a 2014 court decision that ruled that Europeans have the ability to request that search engines remove links from queries associated with their names if those results are irrelevant or outdated. Google has continuously updated its compliance with the ruling to meet increasing European demands. Currently, the company delists search results for all European users based on geolocation signals, such as their IP addresses. This implementation of the right to be forgotten allows the company to remove offending results for European users, without affecting the rest of its users worldwide. Unfortunately, Google’s move was not enough for French lawmakers.

The problem with making domestic laws the de facto laws for the global internet is that all countries do not share the same values and laws. For example, there is no global consensus on the right to be forgotten. In fact, critics around the world have derided the policy because of its negative impact on free speech and because the people who most stand to benefit from this type of policy are convicted sex offenders, board-sanctioned doctors and disgraced politicians who want their past indiscretions removed from the public record. Indeed, many other nations, including the United States, put a higher premium on freedom of expression and transparency than the right to hide.

Actions such as France’s will inevitably lead to the creation of conflicting laws. What if, say, the Brazilian government created transparency laws that said search engines could not remove links within the country, in direct conflict with the global right to be forgotten? Which law would a search engine be obliged to follow?

Furthermore, by forcing a global internet company to apply a domestic law to users in other countries without allowing those countries to decide for themselves about the merits and drawbacks of that policy, the French government could set a precedent for other countries to demand similar power. Many of these countries would not share France’s democratic values. For example, surely French citizens would not like it if the Chinese government prohibited French newspapers from publishing online stories critical of China or if African or Middle Eastern countries used their apostasy and blasphemy laws to bowdlerize French satirists. French lawmakers would rightly defend their nation’s sovereignty and say no.

Rather than acting unilaterally, French lawmakers who do not like other nations’ policies should work to establish formal international agreements regarding these policies, such as a universal rule for the right to be forgotten. There are several issues, such as spam or child pornography, where an international consensus has formed that certain materials are bad and should be removed from the internet, resulting in international agreements to curb their distribution.

However, when a country is unable to convince other nations to sign on to a broad goal, that country should not impose its own values on other nations and should work to limit the impact of its laws and practices to within its own borders. For example, France’s policies should not try to force search engines to delist right-to-be-forgotten links for users outside of its own borders, just as other nations should not attempt to interfere with French domestic policy as it manifests itself online.

Beyond rules regarding censorship and privacy, how one country approaches internet policy can affect other countries in many areas, including e-commerce, content regulation, intellectual property and cybercrime. And while nations may not agree on goals or values, this does not mean they cannot collaborate to build a global internet system that works well for everyone. But this vision of a global internet will not result from forcing domestic policies on other countries or unfairly putting multinational corporations in the middle of international disputes.

The French government should not impose the right to be forgotten on the rest of the world, and other nations should stand up to these attempts to unilaterally determine policy for the global internet. But this will only happen if Americans tell their elected officials that they do not want French lawmakers determining what they see online. Moreover, if France fails to gain consensus around this idea, perhaps this is a policy that should best be forgotten.

Alan McQuinn (@AlanMcQuinn) is a research analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a leading science and tech policy think tank. Daniel Castro (@CastroTech) is ITIF’s vice president.

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