I find myself feeling a bit sorry for Google, and that is not easy to do. One tends to think of them as a very powerful corporation. But as powerful as they might be in some ways, they just got another absurd court ruling that has to have them scratching their heads.
I wrote about another absurd court ruling over a month ago when a Spanish court ordered Google to let people expunge embarrassing things from the Internet. The facts behind that ruling was that a man was embarrassed that he had been listed years ago in a newspaper as delinquent on the tax payments on his home. It was never disputed that he hadn’t paid his taxes on time. But the court still ruled that he has the right to ask Google to expunge the embarrassing material from the web.
Now comes a judge in Canada who is ordering Google to take more content off the Internet. The facts this time center around Equustek Solutions that claims that a rival company stole their technology for an Ethernet gateway and is illegally profiting from their intellectual property. The courts agreed it is theft, but rather than go after the normal commercial solutions the judge turned to Google and told them to remove all ads by the competition from the web.
Google offered to remove all references from Google.ca which is where most Canadians use Google. But the Supreme Court of British Columbia said that was not good enough and ordered Google to remove the references world-wide. At first glance one might say that this is good justice. Assuming that the court is right and that the intellectual property was stolen this provides justice of a sort for Equustek Solutions. But once you think more about it, this is an absurd ruling for a whole lot of different reasons.
First, there are already mechanisms in place to deal with international theft of goods and ideas. Countries have treaties, trade agreements and diplomats to deal with this kind of theft – something that happens all of the time. These mechanisms may not always work the best, but they are how the world as a whole deals with these things. It’s very questionable if any one court anywhere has the jurisdiction to override trade treaties agreed to by their own government and other governments
Further, Google is not the only web source for the stolen gateways and there are other ways for people to continue to find the illegal devices. People who shop at a favorite supply house are still going to find them. People using other search engines like Bing are still going to find them. People who shop at Amazon are likely to still find them
This may not sound like a bad precedent, but it allows a court in one country to order Google, or any web company to remove content that they find offensive. I don’t think there will be many people defending the right of a company to sell stolen patented devices. But little legal precedents grow into big rights.
This ruling could quickly get escalated once other judges hear about it. The judge in Canada said that the ruling was based in part on what had happened in Spain. But what’s next? What if a court in Iran asks Google to remove references to all books by Salman Rushdie from the web since he is an infidel? What if a court in some conservative American state asks Google to remove all content related to abortion and birth control? What if the Syrian government asks to remove any news about their fight with other factions in the country?
At the end of the day this ruling condones censorship, plain and simple. It puts Google into the huge bind of agreeing to be the world’s censor. I am sure that Google is appealing this to higher courts in Canada, but in the meantime do they comply with the order? A part of me hopes that they simply ignore the order and ignore any fines associated with the order. This is a rogue ruling by a rogue court and in the end will probably be struck down within Canada.
But the much bigger issue is what Google is going to do when they are confronted with a bigger moral dilemma? What do they do with one of the absurd orders that comes out of the Supreme Court of a major country and can’t be appealed? Does Google comply and censor the whole world or do they pull out of the country making the request? In both cases the world loses and the Internet gets diminished.
I guess it was inevitable that this had to happen. The Spanish ruling was pure insanity. They guy didn’t pay his taxes on time and all Google did was to scan a database from a newspaper that reported it. The newspaper had the right to publish this and so Google had the right to scan it. Facts are facts and we are starting down a slippery slope when we start picking and choosing which facts are allowed on the Internet. We already know where censorship leads – look at China where hordes of people ride herd every day on what the Chinese people are allowed to read or say on the web. Let’s please not let that system get foisted onto the rest of us.