A country has the right to prevent the world’s Internet users from accessing information, Canada’s highest court ruled on Wednesday.
In a decision that has troubling implications for free expression online, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a company’s effort to force Google to de-list entire domains and websites from its search index, effectively making them invisible to everyone using Google’s search engine
The case, Google v. Equustek, began when British Columbia-based Equustek Solutions accused Morgan Jack and others, known as the Datalink defendants, of selling counterfeit Equustek routers online. It claimed California-based Google facilitated access to the defendants’ sites. The defendants never appeared in court to challenge the claim, allowing default judgment against them, which meant Equustek effectively won without the court ever considering whether the claim was valid.
Although Google was not named in the lawsuit, it voluntarily took down specific URLs that directed users to the defendants’ products and ads under the local (Canadian) Google.ca domains. But Equustek wanted more, and the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that Google had to delete the entire domain from its search results, including from all other domains such Google.com and Google.go.uk. The British Columbia Court of Appeal upheld the decision, and the Supreme Court of Canada decision followed the analysis of those courts.
EFF intervened in the case, explaining [.pdf] that such an injunction ran directly contrary to both the U.S. Constitution and statutory speech protections. Issuing an order that would cut off access to information for U.S. users would set a dangerous precedent for online speech. In essence, it would 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, we warned, 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.
The Supreme Court of Canada ignored those concerns. It ruled that because Google was subject to the jurisdiction of Canadian courts by virtue of its operations in Canada, courts in Canada had the authority to order Google to delete search results worldwide. The court further held that there was no inconvenience to Google in removing search results, and Google had not shown the injunction would offend any rights abroad.
Perhaps even worse, the court ruled that before Google can modify the order, it has to prove that the injunction violates the laws of another nation thus shifting the burden of proof from the plaintiff to a non-party. An innocent third party to a lawsuit shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden or proving whether an injunction violates the laws of another country. Although companies like Google may be able to afford such costs, many others will not, meaning many overbroad and unlawful orders may go unchallenged. Instead, once the issue has been raised at all, it should be the job of the party seeking the benefit of an order, such as Equustek, to establish that there is no such conflict. Moreover, numerous intervenors, including EFF, provided ample evidence of that conflicts in this case.
Beyond the flaws of the ruling itself, the court’s decision will likely embolden other countries to try to enforce their own speech-restricting laws on the Internet, to the detriment of all users. As others have pointed out, it’s not difficult to see repressive regimes such as China or Iran use the ruling to order Google to de-index sites they object to, creating a worldwide heckler’s veto.
The ruling largely sidesteps the question of whether such a global order would violate foreign law or intrude on Internet users’ free speech rights. Instead, the court focused on whether or not Google, as a private actor, could legally choose to take down speech and whether that would violate foreign law. This framing results in Google being ordered to remove speech under Canadian law even if no court in the United States could issue a similar order.
The Equustek decision is part of a troubling trend around the world of courts and other governmental bodies ordering that content be removed from the entirety of the Internet, not just in that country's locale. On the same day the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision issued, a court in Europe heard arguments as to whether to expand the right-to-be-forgotten worldwide.
EFF was represented at the Supreme Court of Canada and the British Columbia Court of Appeal by David Wotherspoon of MacPherson Leslie & Tyerman and Daniel Byma of Fasken Martineau DuMoulin.