The Supreme Court of Canada ruled against Google on Wednesday in a closely-watched intellectual property case over whether judges can apply their own country’s laws to all of the Internet. In a 7-2 decision, the court agreed a British Columbia judge had the power to issue an injunction forcing Google to scrub search results about pirated products not just in Canada, but everywhere else in the world too.
….“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. We have not, to date, accepted that freedom of expression requires the facilitation of the unlawful sale of goods,” wrote Judge Rosalie Abella.
Hmmm. It is not an order that restrains speech, it is merely an order to de-index websites. I’m pretty sure I tried out similar kinds of sophistry in high school, and it did me no good. Apparently I just wasn’t aiming high enough.
But it doesn’t really matter. This issue has been burbling along at barely radar level for years, and eventually it’s going to explode. In the print era it was never a big deal. Occasionally issues of a magazine or newspaper would be banned from a country, or China would demand that the Economist delete a chart from copies sold in their country. But this kind of thing was infrequent, and it didn’t affect anyone else. Likewise, autocratic regimes could ban publications entirely. But again, it didn’t affect anyone else.
It’s not entirely clear to me why the internet is viewed differently, but it is. I don’t think, for example, that the Canadian Supreme Court would dream of ruling that a printed index of corporate profiles had to delete the entry of a company that had violated the law. And they definitely wouldn’t try to demand that it be deleted in every copy sold around the world. But if it’s a Google search result? Sure.
Partly, of course, this a response to the loss of sovereign control that the internet has spawned. If a printed book were banned in Canada, the ban would be pretty effective. There would still be some underground copies circulating, but that’s small beer. A digital listing, however, is a whole different thing. Ban it on google.ca and it takes only a few seconds to search google.com instead. The ban is all but useless.
So how will this play out? At some level, the world will either come to a consensus that censorship is hopeless, or else every country will have its own little internet. Today’s Canadian decision is hardly a big deal, but what happens when China or Russia or Vietnam demands that Amazon stop selling something everywhere in the world, not just in their country? Or that Facebook change its news feed for the whole planet? Or that Google globally delist sites insulting to Dear Leader?
Will it still be no big deal then?