A ruling against Google in Canada could affect free speech around the world

The Supreme Court of Canada issued an order to Google Wednesday: Stop showing search results for a company accused of fraud, not just in Canada, but throughout the world. Yes, that includes everybody reading this in America.

But the court’s ruling that the Alphabet. Inc., (GOOG, GOOGL) search subsidiary “de-index” the company could also invite other courts — including those in countries not as nice as Canada — to issue their own global takedown demands for other sites, which can easily lead to free speech being squashed.

And U.S. companies that want to do business in those other nations will have little choice but to comply. Too bad, eh?

Litigate locally, punish globally

This story started with a lawsuit filed by Barnaby, British Columbia-based Industrial-networking vendor Equustek Solutions Inc., alleging that a competitor, Datalink Technologies Gateways Inc., had started selling its technology as its own.

A lower court told Datalink to knock it off, but the firm then fled the province to “an unknown location” while continuing to hawk its wares online. 

Equustek asked Google to stop sending people to Datalink’s sales pages, and Google complied. But as Datalink kept moving the offending sales pitch from one page to another, Equustek asked Google to stop pointing people to Datalink’s site entirely — and to do the same around the world.

An appeals court granted that request, and Canada’s Supreme Court upheld that while rejecting free-speech arguments in a 7-2 ruling.

“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,” Justice Rosalie Abella wrote. “We have not, to date, accepted that freedom of expression requires the facilitation of the unlawful sale of goods.”

Google’s press office released a statement in response: “We are carefully reviewing the Court’s findings and evaluating our next steps.”

Corporations versus governments

The traditional view of trying to keep something off the internet, as Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Gilmore points out is, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

But multinational corporations, unlike internet packets, operate in fixed locations. They have employees that can be arrested, assets that can be seized and bank accounts that can be hit with fines.

Having any one country tell a company doing business there that it…

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