In Europe, You’ll Need a VPN to See Real Google Search Results
You’ve got a blind date tonight and you want to find out more about the person you’re meeting. So you tap their name into Google to see if any red flags show up. But if you want to see the really juicy stuff and you live in the European Union, chances are better than ever you won’t find the links you’re looking for—unless you use the same kind of surreptitious service that lets people in China access banned websites.
That’s the latest effect of Europe’s so-called “right to be forgotten” rules. First passed in 2014, the EU law states that companies like Google have a responsibility to remove personal information about individuals from their search engines, so long as that information is not of public interest and is “inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant or excessive.” In practice, this means that Google and other search engines must remove links to pages, such as news sites, at the request of people who don’t want particular information about themselves known.
Up until now, Google has only flushed information from country-specific search engines. For example, if you live in Spain and requested a page be delisted, it would only be removed from google.es. Now, it will be removed from all Google search results, including those from google.com itself, if you visit from a computer that appears to be in the EU. To get around that restriction, users may have to turn to a VPN—short for virtual private network. Such services allow users to mask the geographical origins of their internet requests, which have made VPNs popular among, for example, Netflix subscribers from abroad who want to access the same content as US users.
The Outside Internet
The EU’s laws are well intentioned. Theoretically, only things that are not in the public interest are blocked. You really have no right to know whether your date was arrested 15 years ago and then released without charge due to a case of mistaken identity. But the law has been problematic since the start, with many legitimate news stories being pulled from Google because they embarrassed powerful people. And besides, if someone used google.com instead of their national variant, they’d still see the information Google was being asked to suppress. This latest change was meant to close this loophole, but the the catch is that who want to snoop will still be able to, so long as they can fool Google into thinking they’re accessing the search engine into thinking they’re outside the EU.
Such is the challenge of trying to govern the Internet. Many countries have tried to create their very own version of the Internet, featuring sites and information from around the world that yet somehow conforms to their own local laws. China has long had its “Great Firewall,” and countries like Russia and Brazil have tried to build their own barriers to the outside ‘net in recent years.
These walls have always been quite porous thanks to VPNs. The only way to stop it would be for Google to simply stop allowing people to access its search engine via a VPN. That seems unlikely. But with Netflix leading the way in blocking access via VPNs, the Internet may yet fracture and localize.