A conundrum and possible financial catastrophe for Google is in the offing. This is because Google operates as a global enterprise but also individually, as an outgrowth of doing business in some 192 countries. Now, the Canadian Supreme Court has decided that since the “internet is global,” its ruling can span the globe. Its landmark ruling has ordered Google to remove a company’s websites from search results worldwide. The court ruled that when search engines link to illegal content, courts can compel them to permanently remove results – globally.
Does this mean that any one of the 192 separate countries in which Google operates can also impose its will and expand its jurisdiction to affect Google globally? The Canadian Supreme Court thinks so. The answer to this riddle is at the crux of a major headache for the tech titan – one which would dwarf the pain of the EU’s recent $2.7 billion fine over a perceived online shopping monopoly.
The EU’s decision and the recent Canadian court’s ruling could upend Google’s business model because there are potential global repercussions. Up until now, if Google thought any country’s posture or regulation were onerous, it could simply stop doing business in that country. After all, what’s one less country when you can grow in 190 others? However, it now appears that Google is vulnerable and could be brought to its knees.
The EU mandate will affect Google’s bottomline in 28 countries – not just one. And if Canada’s decision is upheld, Google may have to pull in its horns in operations around the world.
Google might be stunned, because it sees itself as an innocent bystander with no direct links to the case of Equustek Solutions Inc. v. Jack. These two Canadian parties have battled over stolen intellectual property used to manufacture competing products in a case that has been stumbling through the courts since 2014. Now, the Supreme Court in Canada has ruled that, while not directly involved, Google’s search results helped to send visitors to websites operated by the defendants (former Equustek employees), who were selling illicit products.
Thus, Google was found to be complicit – unwittingly compounding the negative effect created by the network device manufacturer accused of intellectual property theft. As a result, it must remove pertinent content related to this case from all its search pages. The ruling stated that,
“The internet has no borders – its natural habitat is global. The only way to ensure that the interlocutory injunction attained its objective was to have it apply where Google operates – globally.”
This is not the first time that a global ruling has affected Google. The global nature of the court’s recent ruling hearkens back a few years to the global implications of the famous “right to be forgotten” ruling in France. Here the data protection regulator opined that the European “right to be forgotten” cannot be effectively enforced unless it, too, is applied worldwide. Google has, unsurprisingly, strenuously objected to the rulings in both France and Canada.
Google argues that what holds as good law in one country may be abominable in another country in which it operates. A Guardian article highlights one such example. In Thailand, criticizing the king is a crime punishable by imprisonment. I would think that if the same law held for the UK’s and the US’ leaders, the jails would not be sufficient to handle the transgressors!
In an insightful piece in Torrentfreak, University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist articulates another interesting scenario:
“What happens if a Chinese court orders [Google] to remove Taiwanese sites from the index? Or if an Iranian court orders it to remove gay and lesbian sites from the index? Since local content laws differ from country to country, there is a great likelihood of conflicts.”
Google warns that such orders “could lead to a global race to the bottom, harming access to information that is perfectly lawful to view in one’s own country … We have received demands from governments to remove content globally on various grounds – and we have resisted, even if that has sometimes led to the blocking of our services.”
Professor Geist has an interesting take on this situation, which may present a silver lining in the storm cloud for companies such as Google. He thinks that the Canadian Supreme Court decision (and others like it) is too broad, and would be cumbersome, if not impossible, in its application – in practice unenforceable globally.
As a result, it is likely that the Googles of the globe will band together, and so a cabal of internet giants may emerge to police and regulate themselves. I think that Google would look favorably on that potential outcome, as would other tech titans. Don’t you think?