Google Tuesday attacked efforts by France's privacy watchdog to globalise the so-called right to forgotten, telling European Union judges that the regulator "is out on a limb."
In a hearing at the EU Court of Justice, Google said extending the scope of the right all over the world was "completely unenvisagable." Such a step would "unreasonably interfere" with people's freedom of expression and information and lead to "endless conflicts" with countries that don't recognise the right to be forgotten.
"The French CNIL's global delisting approach seems to be very much out on a limb," Patrice Spinosi, a French lawyer who represents Google, told a 15-judge panel at the court in Luxembourg on Tuesday. It is in "utter variance" with recent judgments.
Tuesday's hearing will help judges to clarify the terms of the EU tribunal's landmark 2014 ruling that forced the search engine to remove links to information about a person on request if it's outdated or irrelevant. The Alphabet unit currently removes such links EU-wide and since 2016 it also restricts access to such information on non-EU Google sites when accessed from the EU country where the person concerned by the information is based.
The US company has been asked to delete links to 2.7 million websites, after the EU court effectively put the search engine in charge of deciding what requests to accept. It has agreed to less than half of them. People unhappy with Google's refusal to remove a link can turn to privacy regulators.
"For the person concerned, the right to delisting is a breath of fresh air," said Jean Lessi, who represents France's data protection authority CNIL, told the court. Google's policy "doesn't stop the infringement of this fundamental right which has been identified, it simply reduces the accessibility. But that is not satisfactory."
There's also an "unacceptable" risk that Google's policy of geoblocking access to links can be circumvented, meaning that people in a particular country may find ways to see content that is meant to be restricted in that territory.
"We cannot simply limit those rights to the European frontiers, they would be dead rights," said Lessi.
France's watchdog CNIL started a probe into Google's actions based on complaints and ended up slapping the search giant with a fine of 100,000 euros ($178,000) for failing to remove links from its global websites as well.
Google's arguments received some support from newspapers, who have often battled the search engine in Europe on other issues.
Removing links globally gives too much power to private companies, such as Google, to decide "what pieces of news the public should find or not," the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers told the French court in a 2016 letter. Newspapers get dozens of requests every day to remove information from online archives by claiming a "right to be forgotten," it said.
Microsoft and groups like the Internet Freedom Foundation and the Wikimedia Foundation intervened in Tuesday's hearing, as well as legal representatives for France, Ireland, Greece, Austria and Poland. Lawyers for the UK didn't show up.
The European Commission, the EU's executive authority, said the view expressed by some member states on Tuesday that the right to be forgotten should be applied nationally wouldn't respect the fact that it's an EU right.
Its key objective is "to ensure an equivalent protection across the EU," said Antoine Buchet, a lawyer for the commission.
The EU court's main ruling never defined how, when and where Google should remove links, which has triggered a wave of new legal challenges. The EU judges are also weighing a second dispute where French courts are seeking advice over whether Google can refuse to remove some information that might be in the public interest. Those requests include information on a person's personal relationship with a public office holder and an article mentioning the name of a Church of Scientology public relations manager.
A London court earlier this year told Google to remove news reports about businessmen's criminal convictions, in line with an English law that aims to aid people to put past crimes behind them. Paris judges also told Google this year to reduce the visibility of stories about a former chief financial officer fined for civil insider-trading violations.
While the right to be forgotten concerns all search engines, Google's dominance in Europe means the company has taken centre stage in the wake of the 2014 EU ruling.
An advocate general at the EU court is scheduled to deliver an advisory opinion on December 11.