Google dominates the world of Internet search, fielding billions of inquiries each day. But a door may be opening for a new kind of search.
Call it the “all-American Google.”
Last year I wrote about the European Court of Justice’s handling of the so-called “right to be forgotten.” The European Union’s highest court imposed rules on search engines, including Google, forcing them to recognize the principle. Europeans who feel certain search results misrepresent them can ask Google to omit the results from future searches. In that post, I observed that such censorship on data retrieval would never stand up in America.
My view may soon be put to the test. French regulators insist that all of Google’s sites, not simply the European versions, must omit these results in response to requests. If such a rule were enforced, an American conducting a search on Google.com, whose servers are housed on American soil, may be denied access to a search result that would otherwise appear due to a complaint lodged in France - or Spain, or Germany.
The risk to the free flow of information is obvious. In a blog post, Google’s global privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer, wrote, “We believe that no one country should have the authority to control what content someone in a second country can access.”
Google is pushing back against the French, which is heartening, though ultimately the dispute is likely to end up in the European courts where our First Amendment guarantees of free communication do not apply. If Google loses, the stage will be set for the next Google - one that will let Americans, and others living in less-regulated societies, see everything to which their country’s protections entitle them.
The all-American Google might be Google itself, if the company is willing to withdraw from most of Europe. The European Court of Justice specified in the original ruling that simply keeping servers off European soil won’t let a company off the hook where delinking is concerned; Google showed itself willing to do as much in mainland China rather than submit its search results to Chinese censorship. If Google is willing to forsake Europe entirely, it could perhaps preserve user trust and search dominance elsewhere. (Conceivably, last week’s announced reorganization of Google as merely the dominant holding of a portfolio company called Alphabet could at least leave the firm’s other businesses free to operate overseas.)
If not, the new provider might be an upstart business, whose forte would be dispensing search results and other content under the latitude provided by the U.S. Constitution. Such content might or might not be available elsewhere. Countries like France would have to decide whether to emulate places like China and Iran by restricting information flowing in from outside their borders. Foreign advertisers and subscribers presumably would be free to buy the service, as long as their home governments didn’t effectively prevent them from paying for it. But the real draw would be for American users, who could be sure they were not subjected to other countries’ censorship when searching the Internet.
By not placing any employees or infrastructure in more restrictive societies, this Google 2.0 could stay true to the original Google’s American-influenced mission of the free flow of information, staying beyond the reach of foreign restrictions. Larry Page, Google’s CEO and co-founder, described the “perfect search engine” as one that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.”
Ultimately, information can’t be chained. Once stored in digital form, it can’t be forgotten either. Europe’s nanny-state mentality may want to create a kind of v-chip for the Internet, dictating what users can and can’t see, but such efforts will offer no more than limited effectiveness for a limited time.
The ultimate question is whether Europe, which benefits from Google commerce and Google facilities, really wants to turn the world’s largest information service into an all-American company.