Canadian courts can force internet search leader Google to remove results worldwide, the country’s top court ruled on Wednesday, drawing criticism from civil liberties groups arguing such a move sets a precedent for censorship on the internet.
In its 7-2 decision, Canada’s Supreme Court found that a court in the country can grant an injunction preventing conduct anywhere in the world when it is necessary to ensure the injunction’s effectiveness.
“The internet has no borders – its natural habitat is global,” the Supreme Court wrote in its judgment. “The only way to ensure that the interlocutory injunction attained its objective was to have it apply where Google operates – globally.”
Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc, did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
The case stems from claims by Equustek Solutions Inc, a small technology company in British Columbia that manufactures network devices, that distributor Datalink Technologies Gateways relabeled one of its products and sold it as its own online and acquired trade secrets to design and manufacture a competing product.
In 2012, Equustek asked Google to remove Datalink search results until the case against the company was resolved. While Google removed over 300 specific web pages associated with Datalink, it did so only on the Canadian version of its search engine.
The Supreme Court of British Columbia subsequently ordered Google to stop displaying search results in any country for any part of Datalink’s websites.
In its appeal before the Supreme Court of Canada, Google had argued that the global reach of the order was unnecessary and that it raised concerns over freedom of expression.
The Supreme Court rejected Google’s argument that the right to freedom of expression should have prevented the order from being issued.
“This is not an order to remove speech that, on its face, engages freedom of expression values,” the court wrote in its ruling. “We have not, to date, accepted that freedom of expression requires the facilitation of the unlawful sale of goods.”
The global reach was necessary, according to the court, because if the removed search results were restricted to Canada alone, purchasers both in and out of Canada could easily continue to find and buy from Datalink.
OpenMedia, a Canadian group campaigning for open communications, opposed the ruling.
“There is great risk that governments and commercial entities will see this ruling as justifying censorship requests that could result in perfectly legal and legitimate content disappearing off the web because of a court order in the opposite corner of the globe,” said OpenMedia spokesman David Christopher.
Google cannot appeal the Supreme Court ruling. If the company has evidence that complying with the order would force it to violate other countries’ laws, including interfering with freedom of expression, it can apply to the British Columbia court to alter the order, the Supreme Court said, noting Google has not made such an application.