How The Myth Of Google Censorship Was Busted By The EU & Canada
Google has successfully convinced various governments that they have been censoring their search results for over a decade. It has been revealed that governments figured out that no censorship had ever been done. Now that this myth has been exposed, both of Google and the governments finally have to deal with the hard decisions of censorship.
A court ruling in Canada and a privacy regulator in France are demanding that google censor its search results worldwide, not just within versions of Google that the company runs for those countries.
Both of these bodies have been unconvinced that Google’s censorship on only country-specific versions of Google is sufficient. That is due to the fact that both understand that it is not difficult to get around such censorship. That is a change from how past governments have viewed things, in particular China.
Google.com: The World’s Search Engine
In the past, there was only one version of Google – Google.com. Everyone used it; everyone got the same results.
Then, Google started changing the results of what Google.com served. If someone was in the UK, and you looked up football, you would receive information related to what Americans call soccer as opposed to American football.
This change happened around over a decade ago. As well as this, back then Google eventually developed country-specific versions of Google. For instance, a Google UK was established, which lives at Google.co.uk. The purpose was to make it even easier for people to get UK-specific search results as well as to improve ad targeting.
The Country-Specific Googles
A country-specific version of Google is not an independent search engine disconnected from Google overall. All of the same content is available as with Google.com, unless Google does something. Normally, content is simply listed differently when someone searches, in a fashion that Google thinks will be helpful for people in a particular country. For example, content written in the language of a particular country might get a boost.
The issue that Google has faced with country-specific versions is that habits are hard to break. People were used to going to Google.com, and they kept doing that even when country-specific versions were introduced. To fix this, about 10 years ago, Google began redirecting people. For instance, if you tried to reach Google.com from the UK, you would get redirected to Google UK at Google.co.uk.
If you really wanted, you could get back to Google.com. You could even make this your permanent choice. Google’s made that much more difficult now.
Google’s History of Censorship
Google has been censoring its search results for almost as long as Google has existed. It largely started with banning and dropping websites that were deemed to be violating its spam guidelines. The government did not order this, Google itself took action.
As well as this, Google censored in accordance with the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act. I don’t know exactly when Google first censored due to a DMCA request. However, the DMCA started when Google did, and as a US-based company, it has long followed that law.
Google followed that law worldwide, DMCA removals happen globally. Even though it’s a US law. In part, this is because there’s no “American Google” where only American censorship can be applied. Although, there is no reason why Google could not remove content from Google.com but allow it in places like Google UK or Google France. They could do this but they don’t. This means that it imposes American censorship on other countries.
Google has censored in other countries for a long time according to local laws. A classic example is in Germany, where it is not allowed to list Nazi-related websites. This can easily be seen by searching for “nazi” on Google.com and comparing to Google Germany at Google.de.
No one really complained much about country-specific censorship in the US or Germany or elsewhere until Google moved into China. It was there where Google came under huge attack when it started operating in the country with censoring in 2006.
The reality is, Google did not purposely not sensor Chinese search results.
How Google Faked Out China
It is true, however, that Google did censor search results for those using Google China specifically. However, Google also ensured that anyone could get uncensored results if they went to Google.com. This issue disappeared for Google largely because since China Intercepts search traffic for all of its country. It could block users from reaching Google.com, particularly if it detected them doing searches for censored content. As well as this, it went away because Google did too. In 2010, following a hack on its servers, Google decided to stop censoring its search results in China.
Other Countries Caught On
Overall, Google has been largely successful with various demands over the years in pulling content out of country-specific versions, like it did with China, whilst maintaining that content in Google.com, which anybody worldwide could access. Although, last year, twin cases began uncovering the myth that Google was fulfilling its censorship obligations.
The first was in Canada. Last year, Google was ordered to remove content about a company in a trademark case worldwide, not simply in Google Canada. Google appealed that case. Over the week, it lost that appeal. It is unclear if Google will appeal again. It does have at least one more attempt at doing so.
The Canadian action was overshadowed by the rise of the Right To Be Forgotten in the European Union. As Google implemented removal requests under this new right, it only did so within the country-specific versions of Google where the request initiated. Various privacy agencies in the EU realised this meant such content remained on Google.com, simply accessible to EU citizens who went there. They have pressured for broader censorship.
Recently, the French privacy regulator demanded Google censor globally. Everyone has yet to hear Google’s response. This could mean that it could appeal and face fines whilst that process happens.
The New Era Of Google Censorship
The myth of censorship that Google had maintained is now busted. There is no going back. Smart governments are going to understand that when Google censors only on country-specific versions, that’s not really censoring in the way they’ve demanded. So what does happen next?
One holding action has been that Google has made it increasingly difficult to reach Google.com since fall of last year. The situation has gotten even trickier. Google did appear to restore the Google.com link to always showing on the bottom of the Google France home page. But, using that option did not make it “stick” as a choice, as was the case for years.
Google could take further action. Anyone trying to reach Google.com in a country demanding total censorship, as with France, might get redirected back to Google France, at Google.fr. Technically, it isn’t hard at all.
However, is this going to be enough? What if the authorities in France are still upset that people outside France can see content they have ordered to be “forgotten.” That is a tricky issue. Technically, Google could do this easily. It already does this for DMCA requests that happen in the US, imposing that censorship globally.
When One Country Censors For All
What the French authorities think might be great for privacy reasons could come back and haunt them politically. What if France or the EU disagrees with political censorship demands from a particular country aimed at Google? If Google has to pull content worldwide because of those demands, will they be happy that another country has imposed censorship on EU citizens?
This probably is not the case. A compromise might be that Google institutes IP-based censorship. This is where Google would look at someone’s IP address and figure out if they were within a particular country. If you are actually within France, then you get French censorship.
Google could implement this. The question is whether that would be enough for the cases in front of it now as well as more to come. If not, we are heading into a world where the censorship demands of one country could be imposed upon the citizens of another.