Many commentators were wrong-footed on reading Advocate-General Szpunar’s Opinion in C-505/17 Google Inc v Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés (CNIL), concerning the territorial limits to right to have search results delisted, more popularly referred to as ‘the right to erasure’ or the ‘right to be forgotten’ (‘RTBF’ – a product of the CJEU in Google Spain). Far from ruling out ‘extraterritorial’ or worldwide force of the right, the AG saw no objection to it in principle, even if he suggested non-application to the case at issue (he did so again in his Opinion in C-18/18 Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek v Facebook, which I review here and on which judgment is forthcoming next week; central to that case is private law, in contrast to current case which at its core is a public law issue of enforcement).
The Court yesterday held (the Twitter storm it created was later somewhat drowned by the UK Supreme Court’s decision in the prorogation case) and overall confirmed the AG’s views. As with the AG’s Opinion, it is important to read the Judgment for what it actually says, not just how the headlines saw it. For immediate analysis, readers may also want to read Daphne Keller’s and Michèle Finck’s threads and Dan Svantesson’s impromptu assessment.
It is again important to point out that the French data protection authority’s (CNIL) decision at issue, 2016/054 is a general CNIL instruction to Google to carry out global delisting in instances where natural persons request removal; not a case-specific one.
I have a case-note on the case and on C-137/17 (judgment also yesterday) forthcoming with Yuliya Miadzvetskaya, but here are my initial thoughts on what I think is of particular note.
1. The Court of Justice (in Grand Chamber) first of all, unusually, examines the questions in the light of both Directive 95/46, applicable to the facts at issue, and the GDPR Regulation ‘in order to ensure that its answers will be of use to the referring court in any event’ (at 41).
2. Next, at 52, the Court dismisses a fanciful distributive approach towards the computing reality of data processing:
Google’s establishment in French territory carries on, inter alia, commercial and advertising activities, which are inextricably linked to the processing of personal data carried out for the purposes of operating the search engine concerned, and, second, that that search engine must, in view of, inter alia, the existence of gateways between its various national versions, be regarded as carrying out a single act of personal data processing. The referring court considers that (and the CJEU clearly agrees, GAVC), in those circumstances, that act of processing is carried out within the framework of Google’s establishment in French territory.
3. At 55, the Court points out that de-referencing carried out on all the versions of a search engine would meet the objective of data protection in full, particularly (at 56) given the fact that ‘(t)he internet is a global network without borders and search engines render the information and links contained in a list of results displayed following a search conducted on the basis of an individual’s name ubiquitous (the Court restating here its finding in both Google Spain and Bolagsupplysningen).
At 58 the Court employs that finding of ubiquitousness to ‘justify the existence of a competence on the part of the EU legislature to lay down the obligation, for a search engine operator, to carry out, when granting a request for de-referencing made by such a person, a de-referencing on all the versions of its search engine.’ No grand statements on public international law’s views on adjudicative extraterritoriality /universality. Just a simple observation.
The Court subsequently however (at 59-60) notes other States’ absence of a right to de-referencing and their different views on the balancing act between privacy and freedom of speech in particular. At 61-62 it then notes
While the EU legislature has, in Article 17(3)(a) of Regulation 2016/679, struck a balance between that right and that freedom so far as the Union is concerned (see, to that effect, today’s judgment, GC and Others (De-referencing of sensitive data), C‑136/17, paragraph 59), it must be found that, by contrast, it has not, to date, struck such a balance as regards the scope of a de-referencing outside the Union.
In particular, it is in no way apparent from the wording of Article 12(b) and subparagraph (a) of the first paragraph of Article 14 of Directive 95/46 or Article 17 of Regulation 2016/679 that the EU legislature would, for the purposes of ensuring that the objective referred to in paragraph 54 above is met, have chosen to confer a scope on the rights enshrined in those provisions which would go beyond the territory of the Member States and that it would have intended to impose on an operator which, like Google, falls within the scope of that directive or that regulation a de-referencing obligation which also concerns the national versions of its search engine that do not correspond to the Member States.
In other words the Court has adopted the same approach as the United States Supreme Court has done in Morrison v. National Australia Bank; and Kiobel: there is a presumption against extraterritoriality, however it is not excluded. In the absence of indications of the legislator wish to extend the right to delisting extraterritorially it does not so exist in the current state of the law.
4. At 63 the Court hints at what might be required as part of such future potential extraterritorial extension: EU law does not currently provide for cooperation instruments and mechanisms as regards the scope of a de-referencing outside the Union – in contrast with the regime it has intra-EU. This also hints at the CJEU taking a more multilateral approach to the issue than its SCOTUS counterpart.
5. At 69 the Court then adds that intra-EU, a delisting order covering all of the search engine’s EU extensions is both possible and may be appropriate: co-operation between authorities may lead to ‘where appropriate, a de-referencing decision which covers all searches conducted from the territory of the Union on the basis of that data subject’s name.’
6. A final twist then follows at 72:
Lastly, it should be emphasised that, while, as noted in paragraph 64 above, EU law does not currently require that the de-referencing granted concern all versions of the search engine in question, it also does not prohibit such a practice. Accordingly, a supervisory or judicial authority of a Member State remains competent to weigh up, in the light of national standards of protection of fundamental rights (references to CJEU authority omitted, GAVC), a data subject’s right to privacy and the protection of personal data concerning him or her, on the one hand, and the right to freedom of information, on the other, and, after weighing those rights against each other, to order, where appropriate, the operator of that search engine to carry out a de-referencing concerning all versions of that search engine.
Here I do not follow the Court: one could argue that the harmonised EU’s approach is currently not to extend the right to delisting extraterritorially. The Court on the other hand seems to be suggesting that the extraterritoriality issue was not discussed in the Directive or Regulation, that EU law does not occupy (‘pre-empt’) that regulatory space and consequently leaves it up to the Member States to regulate that right. (Update 27 September 2019: Other interpretations are collated here).
I shall need more detailed reading of the GDPR’s preparatory works to form a view as to whether the extraterritorial element was considered, and rejected, or simply not discussed. However I also want to already point out that if the decision is left to the Member States, the case-law and theory of pre-emption clarifies that such national action has to be taken in full compatibility with EU law. including free movement of services, say, which Google may rightfully invoke should there be a disproportionate impact on the Internal Market.
(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 126.96.36.199, Heading 188.8.131.52.5.