On Thursday, October 20, 2016, the Wikimedia Foundation filed a petition with the French Supreme Court in support of access to knowledge. In May 2015, the French data protection authority (CNIL) decided that Google must remove information globally from its search results when requested appropriately by French citizens. Since that time, Google and the CNIL have disagreed about how extensive such removals must be.
Although the CNIL’s case is directed towards Google, the gradual disappearance of Wikimedia pages from Google search results around the world ultimately impacts the public’s ability to find the invaluable knowledge contained within the Wikimedia projects. Search engines have played an important role in the quest for knowledge — roughly half of Wikipedia visits originate from search engines.
The CNIL’s most recent order, if upheld, threatens the capacity to write and share important information about history, public figures, and more. It undermines the public’s ability to find relevant and neutral information on the internet, and would make it exceedingly difficult for projects like Wikimedia’s to provide information that is important for society.
The current case is the latest in a series of concerning developments that began with the European Court of Justice decision in Google Spain v. AEPD and Mario Costeja González in May 2014. The case resulted in a right to be forgotten—the idea that people may demand to have truthful information about themselves selectively removed (or “delisted”) from search engine results.
The Wikimedia Foundation has expressed its strong disagreement with the judgment and outlined its risks for the free knowledge movement in an earlier post.
Additionally, as part of our efforts to bring more transparency to these requests, when we receive notice that a Wikipedia article was removed from a search engine due to a “right to be forgotten” delisting request, we publish the notice in a public index for the Wikimedia community’s reference. Unfortunately, these notices are frustratingly vague, and many search engines are less than transparent about their delisting process.
In response to the Google Spain case, Google started honoring delisting requests by removing material from search results that were accessible via French domains. On May 21, 2015, the CNIL ordered Google to remove search results from all of its domains, accessible to anyone around the world. Google requested a reconsideration of this decision, but the CNIL rejected this request in September 2015. This would have significantly expanded the impact of a delisting request, and meant that requests considered under solely French law would limit accessibility to that information globally. Google chose not to comply with the CNIL’s overbroad order and offered a compromise that would limit the impact of such requests to people in France.
The CNIL rejected this compromise and demanded that Google pay a fine for non-compliance with its order. Google still implemented its proposed compromise, and is now challenging the CNIL’s order before the Conseil d’État, the French Supreme Court. In our petition, we request permission to intervene in the case to ask the Conseil d’État to uphold Google’s appeal. We believe that Google should not be required under one country’s laws to remove lawful content from search results around the world.
Our filing demonstrates how the Wikimedia projects will be directly impacted by the CNIL order.
First, roughly half of Wikipedia visits typically originate from search engines. Delisting links to articles, therefore, will make it more difficult for people to find and access Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects.
Second, the very concept underlying delisting is contrary to the Wikimedia movement’s goal of promoting access to free knowledge. While the Foundation aims to make knowledge easier to access, delisting runs counter to this goal by making some important information harder to find.
Third, the CNIL’s order would limit access to knowledge to people around the world, not just in France. Access to neutral, truthful, and valuable information should not be blocked globally based on a single country’s decision.
Allowing the CNIL to apply its rules globally could encourage other countries to apply their laws outside their borders, and delist or delete information based on their own interpretation of what constitutes the public interest. Diverse countries and cultures have different values and laws, and we believe those differences should be respected. We fear that rules like this will make it more difficult to discuss and remember subjects that are important to society, such as human rights abuses or dissenting political opinions.
No single nation should attempt to control what information the entire world may access. This case would fundamentally undermine the Wikimedia vision of a world where every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.
We hope that the Conseil d’État will allow our intervention in the matter, and find that the scope of the CNIL’s order was unjustified.
Aeryn Palmer, Legal Counsel*
* Special thanks to Claire Rameix-Séguin and François Gilbert of SCP Baraduc-Duhamel- Rameix for their representation of the Wikimedia Foundation in this case, as well as Jacob Rogers, Stephen LaPorte, Jan Gerlach, Tarun Krishnakumar and Michelle Paulson of the Wikimedia Foundation.