Can one country really tell Google what it can and can’t show in its search results for the rest of the world? Read on.
Canada’s Supreme Court made a startling ruling that has broad-reaching impact around the world. In a 7-2 ruling, the court decided to grant an injunction preventing Google from showing certain search results anywhere in the world. In other words, censoring an American company from providing content even within US borders.
“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.” – Canada’s Supreme Court
The case stems from a Canadian company (Equustek) that found what it deemed an illegal knock-off of one of its products being sold on-line. They took the offending company to court and the court took Equuestek’s side. The company, Datalink, was ordered to stop selling the products under its brand name. Shortly thereafter, Datalink shifted to an online only company and it caused problems for authorities to enforce the ruling.
Although they did issue an arrest warrant for one of the company’s principals.
In 2012, Equuestek then asked Google for help and Google complied, voluntarily taking down several hundred URL links to the offending site on Google Canada. But the company moved its product sites to different URLs, including those outside Google Canada and the links lived on.
But this is where it gets interesting. Equustek went back to court, seeking a worldwide ban on listings for the company. In 2015, a British Columbia court ordered Google to remove all search results worldwide.
Wait a minute. What? How can one country tell the entire world what they can see on-line?
Now you may not care that a company that gets caught breaking trademark law gets yanked, but what precedent does it set? Maybe next time, it’s the government of North Korea trying to decide what you get to see or link to.
“It’s a worrisome trend, where we see individual countries trying to regulate the internet worldwide…And of course the consequences of that would mean that even countries like Russia and China could do the same thing and that will really affect the content available on the internet.” — Gregg Leslie, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in The Guardian
Google stated the obvious in its filings: “one country should not have the right to impose its rules on others.” They also appealed on freedom of speech issues. Google appealed the case… and lost. The judgment in the three court panel decided that “The plaintiffs have established, in my view, that an order limited to the google.ca search site would not be effective.”
From the panels’ ruling:
The main issue before the Court was an appeal presented by Google, Inc. regarding an interlocutory injunction that prohibits it from including specific websites in results delivered by its search engines. Google is not a party to the litigation at hand and argued more importantly that the Supreme Court of British Columbia did not have jurisdiction on the matter. Google also contended that the “injunction should not have been granted because of its effect on freedom of speech.”
The Court affirmed the Chamber’s judge determination that Google does indeed fall in British Columbia’s jurisdiction as it carries key parts of its business in the Province. (para. 54). More importantly, Google asserted that the order made by the trial judge could have extraterritorial effect and undermine the right to freedom of expression. (para. 91). Regarding this extraterritorial effect on freedom of expression, the Court rejected this notion and determined that the order would not offend any other nation pursuant to the principal of comity. The Court also dismissed Google’s contention that the order should have only been made to websites under Canadian domain and not worldwide. The court also stated that there had been no evidence that the defendant’s websites were used to exercise freedom of expression.
Then the case went to the Supreme Court for review.
In its ruling, the court said the decision was necessary because people in other countries could find and buy the products from the company made the offending products.
“This is not an order to remove speech that, on its face, engages freedom of expression values. We have not, to date, accepted that freedom of expression requires the facilitation of the unlawful sale of goods.” – Canada’s Supreme Court
There is no further appeal for Google. The only exception would be if Google can show that complying with the ruling would break the laws of other countries, but to date, they have not made that claim.