Ottawa, Ontario—A Canadian court order forcing Google to block certain websites from its search results around the world sets a dangerous precedent for online free expression, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said today.
Weighing in on a trade secret case that could have dramatic implications for free speech on the Internet, EFF told the Supreme Court of Canada in a brief that courts should be extremely reluctant to use their authority to decide what users around the world can see on the Internet. A court in British Columbia vastly overstepped, EFF said, when it issued an injunction in 2014 to “disappear” websites that not only applied to Google’s Canada-specific search, Google.ca, but to all of its searches around the world.
“The court’s overbroad ruling against Google, which had done nothing wrong and wasn’t a party in the lawsuit, put the private commercial interests of one company ahead of the interests of Internet users worldwide. That’s wrong and the Supreme Court of Canada should fix it,” said EFF Frank Stanton Legal Fellow Aaron Mackey. “Any request to issue an order in a local legal battle that affects the rights of users around the world should face a very high bar. Such orders may conflict with other nations’ laws and set the stage for authoritarian governments to impose their own speech-restricting laws on the Internet.”
In the underlying case, British Columbia-based Equustek Solutions accused Morgan Jack and others, known as the Datalink defendants, of misappropriating designs for its routers and selling counterfeit routers online. It claimed California-based Google facilitated access to the defendants’ sites. The defendants never appeared in court to challenge the claim, resulting in a default judgment against them. Although Google is not named in the lawsuit, it voluntarily took down specific URLs that directed users to the defendants’ products and ads under the local Google.ca domains. But Equustek wanted more, and the British Columbia court ruled that Google must delete the entire domain from its search results, including from all other local domains such Google.com and Google.go.uk. An appeals court upheld the decision.
EFF’s brief argues that the order issued by the British Columbia court violates both international free expression principles and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“The Canadian court order is an overbroad gag on an online speaker’s ability to publish truthful information about websites that are readily accessible on the Internet,” said EFF Staff Attorney Vera Ranieri. “The order also unlawfully restricts Internet users’ rights to access the information on those websites, which has the real potential to chill speech and access to information on the Internet. We hope the Supreme Court of Canada fixes it—and other courts around the world take heed.”