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EU free speech vs right to be forgotten case to be heard next week

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So much has happened in the past couple of years – and little of it good – in that space where US tech giants and EU regulations collide, that one of the original controversies, “the right to be forgotten,” has become almost, well, forgotten.

But not for long, as the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) is about to rule on the matter next week.

On the face of it, the right to have search results on sensitive personal issues that persist to be harmful to somebody’s reputation for years – or really, forever – removed from search engines makes sense. After all, human memory doesn’t work in the same unforgiving, absolute way that search engines do. And so the new, digital age, it has been argued in the EU, is imposing some unfair and hard burdens on “human vs. machine” – those people, that is, caught on the wrong side of whatever, and documented as such whenever somebody “googles” their name.

But on the other side the argument has been that removing links from search results on this or any other basis is a slippery slope that will eventually lead to an artificial rewriting of online “history,” and inevitably stifle free speech.

At the heart of all this is Google, as the most widely used search engine in the EU. “Right to be forgotten” cases have sprung up across the continent, but they originated in France: that country not known to be one Google’s biggest fans. However, it is still a fairly influential EU member – and the original case stems from there.

Moreover, the controversy highlights not only human nature, but also the nature of the internet as a global platform, and the real difficulty in defining a “sovereign” digital space within it, in terms of that space adhering to national laws. And national laws are still something that, despite the best – or the worst – efforts, remains an important concern among EU member-states.

However, the worry now seems to be whether ECJ’s upcoming ruling, should it be in favor of the right to be forgotten, will apply globally.

In this case, Richard Cumbley of law firm Linklaters told Reuters, it would “create a serious clash with US concepts of freedom of speech, and other states might also try and suppress search results on a global basis reducing Google’s search engine to a list of the anodyne and inoffensive.”

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