Google’s French subsidiary has been ordered to pay daily fines of €1,000 unless links to a defamatory article are removed from the parent company’s entire global network.
The punitive judgment by the Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance, based on the controversial right to be forgotten online established by the European Court of Justice, breaks new ground in making the subsidiary liable for the activities of its parent company – in this case Google Inc.
The court handed down the ruling in September but it has barely been reported reported outside France. At one level, the decision represents a pioneering attempt by a European court to enforce its order of justice on the internet worldwide.
Google has said it is considering its options and that it already removes links to defamatory online articles, fulfiling its legal obligations to French citizens. The French decision follows the May ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the case of Mario Costeja González, a Spanish man who succeeded in ordering Google to remove links to an old article saying that his home was being repossessed to pay off debts.
His lawyers argued that it was a matter of his privacy and that Google had to delete “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” data from its search results – what has become known as the right to be forgotten.
Dan Shefet, a Danish lawyer who works in France, was one of those who brought the latest case against Google in France. He said that the Paris court exploited one aspect of the ECJ judgment which stated that: “the activities of the operator of the search engine and those of its establishment situated in the member state concerned are inextricably linked.”
Shefet added: “The real importance of those decisions is that now any individual in the UK – or another member state – who suffers from Google’s [links to a libellous article] may obtain an injunction against their local Google subsidiary.
“Until now a subsidiary could not be legally forced under the threat of daily penalties to deliver a result which was beyond its control. The complainant would therefore have to obtain judgment against Google in the US because only Google Inc controls the search engine world wide.
“Now a daily penalty can be inflicted upon Google UK by local courts until Google Inc delivers the result by way of [removing links] world wide.”
Shefet said he launched the case because his firm had been the subject of a “defamation campaign” organised through blogs and sites by an individual who could not be traced.
He first sued Google last year. “We obtained a court order on August 6 2013 from the court in Paris enjoining both Google France and Google Inc to cease referencing the URLs in question,” he explained.
“Google France complied, but in spite of serving judgment on Google Inc nothing happened. They simply didn’t comply and didn’t even respond to the French court order.”
Removing links from sites ending with the ‘.fr’ suffix did not solve the problem, Shefet said, because his is an international law firm with clients from other countries. He believes that the significance of the latest Paris tribunal ruling is not limited to privacy or defamation issues but could change the entire range of business liabilities for multi-national corporations with local subsidiaries.
At the time of the Paris judgment, it was reported that Google had received 135,000 requests to remove links relating to 470,000 individual pages and was receiving requests at a rate of 1,000 a day. In the preceeding three months, the French paper Le Croix added, Google had refused around 60% of these requests mostly on the grounds that they related to professional rather than private life.
A Google spokesperson said: “This was initially a defamation case and it began before the CJEU ruling on the right to be forgotten. We are reviewing the ruling and considering our options. More broadly, the right to be forgotten raises some difficult issues and so we’re seeking advice – both from data protection authorities and via our Advisory Council – on the principles we should apply when making these difficult decisions.”
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