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Free speech concerns over possible extension of 'right to be forgotten' concept

Free speech could be under threat if the so-called “right to be forgotten” concept is rolled out globally, a human rights organisation has warned.

Article 19, a British-led group of non-governmental organisations, is concerned that countries such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia would have greater power in censoring information on the internet if France is granted permission to force Google to de-list content on all the search engine’s domains.

At present, the right to be forgotten allows European citizens to demand any results about them considered “inadequate, irrelevant or… excessive” to be removed, if the search is carried out in an EU country.

This means that even though the web page would still exist, it would be impossible to find on a search engine.

France’s data regulator, the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertes (CNIL), is now asking the European Court of Justice to clarify whether the ability to de-list links should go beyond google.fr, the French site of Google, extending to all versions across the world.

“This case could see the right to be forgotten threatening global free speech,” said Thomas Hughes, Article 19 executive director.

“European data regulators should not be allowed to decide what internet users around the world find when they use a search engine.

“The CJEU (Court of Justice of the European Union) must limit the scope of the right to be forgotten in order to protect the right of internet users around the world to access information online.

“If European regulators can tell Google to remove all references to a website, then it will be only a matter of time before countries like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia start to do the same.

“The CJEU should protect freedom of expression not set a global precedent for censorship.”

Right to be forgotten came into force in 2014, after Spanish national Mario Costeja sought to remove out-of-date links relating to unsettled debts that had since been settled.

A hearing on France’s request for clarification is due to take place in Luxembourg tomorrow, with a judgement expected in 2019.

The UK is still subject to rulings from the European Court of Justice, though the legal relationship could change once the UK leaves the EU on 29 March next year.

Google is yet to respond to a request for comment.

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