A censorship storm is brewing in Europe.
As if enforcement of the “right to be forgotten” hadn’t already proven thorny enough, a French court sent down a stunning ruling against a food blogger named Caroline Doudet, ordering her to amend a negative restaurant review because it happened to show up prominently within Google search results.
Doudet, whose Cultur’elle blog boasts an audience of roughly 3,000, was sued by Italian café Il Giardino after its owners alleged that her post was bad for business. A judge concurred, and also ruled that Doudet must shell out roughly $3,380 in damages and legal fees.
"This decision creates a new crime of 'being too highly ranked [on a search engine]', or of having too great an influence'," Doudet told the BBC.
While the restaurant’s owners took issue with the entire post -- which complained of rude service, cold wine and dry pizza -- a judge decided that Doudet need only amend the title, which referred to the restaurant as “a place to avoid.”
The entire post has since been deleted.
Though to American ears, such a ruling poses dicey questions about free speech in a digital era, the decision doesn’t necessarily set precedence in French law, a local legal blogger told the BBC. In this case, the judge simply issued “an emergency order,” which is intended to temporarily protect any victim from harm, and which can later “be overturned or upheld if the parties go to a full hearing.”
Doudet, who did not have time to find an attorney and represented herself in court, said she would not appeal the ruling so as not have to “relive weeks of anguish.”
As opposed to staunch First Amendment rights in America, the ruling points to a broader tolerance of censorship in Europe, said Danny Sullivan, founding editor of Search Engine Land, who predicts such decisions may eventually result in greater pushback there.
Sullivan added that some European courts are slow to fully comprehend the changing dynamics of the web. “It’s hard to imagine that a business owner would ask a newspaper to pull down a bad review,” he said. “But when it comes to the Internet, all rules are off.”
The decision against Doudet comes just as Microsoft said that its search engine Bing -- like Google -- will begin to accept search result removal requests from European users, per a European Union court’s decision that people have the “right to be forgotten.” While Google began a similar effort last month, a new request form on Bing.com instructs users how to go about exercising that right.