Canada's ruling on Google search results sparks censorship concerns

The ruling, requiring Google to de-index a company's website globally, sets a dangerous precedent, some internet freedom advocates warn.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer
(Image: Phillippe Landreville/ Supreme Court of Canada)

Canada's Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a ruling ordering Google to de-index a company globally, sparking concerns among freedom of speech advocates about the ruling's implications.

The case, Google v. Equustek, stems from a 2011 complaint from the company Equustek Solutions. The British Columbia firm charged that a group of Equustek distributors (known as the Datalink defendants) were selling counterfeit Equustek products online.

Datalink continued to sell these goods globally, even after the court ordered it to stop, prompting Equustek to ask Google to intervene. Google initially de-indexed 345 specific webpages associated with Datalink on google.ca.

Equustek then sought an injunction to stop Google from displaying any part of the Datalink websites on any of its search results worldwide. A lower court granted the injunction, and the Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld it.

"The problem in this case is occurring online and globally," Justice Rosalie Abella wrote for the majority. "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."

Some open internet advocates, however, said the ruling sets a dangerous global precedent. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said the court effectively ruled that "a country has the right to prevent the world's internet users from accessing information."

The ruling, the group said, would effectively "expand the power of any court in the world to edit the entire internet, whether or not the targeted material or site is lawful in another country." That, it continued, "is likely to result in a race to the bottom, as well-resourced individuals engage in international forum-shopping to impose the one country's restrictive laws regarding free expression on the rest of the world."

University of Ottawa Law Professor Michael Geist, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law, added to that argument:

"[W]hat happens if a Chinese court orders it to remove Taiwanese sites from the index? Or if an Iranian court orders it to remove gay and lesbian sites from the index? Since local content laws differ from country to country, there is a great likelihood of conflicts. That leaves two possible problematic outcomes: local courts deciding what others can access online or companies such as Google selectively deciding which rules they wish to follow."

Other groups including Human Rights Watch and the Canadian internet rights group OpenMedia also slammed the ruling.

The outcome was welcomed by other groups, such as representatives of the Canadian music industry interested in protecting their content online.

Writing for the majority of the court, Judge Abella dismissed concerns about censorship:

"This is not an order to remove speech that, on its face, engages freedom of expression values, it is an order to de-index websites that are in violation of several court orders," she wrote. "We have not, to date, accepted that freedom of expression requires the facilitation of the unlawful sale of goods."
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