We all know that, on Wednesday, a 7-2 majority of the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed an order that required Google to de-index the websites of a company who was using the internet to sell the intellectual property of another company – an order against a non-party with global effect. The case – Google v Equustek – is about rule of law in internet days and about doing what can be done about internet-based harm and not throwing hands up or letting romantic ideas about the internet and expression interfere.
After reading the case I tweeted these words and promised follow up. In keeping with my custom I’ll keep it short, in part by giving reference to an editorial by Neil Turkewitz in The Hill in which he applauds the Equustek decision. Mr. Turkewitz explains that the majority decision is a sensible response to arguments based on the “theory of cyber-libertarian ideology” that has been embraced by internet companies and freedom of expression advocates alike:
The decision in Equustek doesn’t answer all questions, and courts and policy makers globally will need to continue to closely examine the proper scope of national jurisdiction with respect to conduct that impacts multiple jurisdictions. Indeed, as I’ve written before, “I’m not unsympathetic to Google’s concerns. As a player with a global footprint, Google is legitimately concerned that it could be forced to comply with the sometimes-oppressive and often contradictory laws of countries around the world. But that doesn’t make it — or any other Internet company — unique. Global businesses have always had to comply with the rules of the territories in which they do business … There will be (and have been) cases in which taking action to comply with the laws of one country would place a company in violation of the laws of another. But principles of comity exist to address the problem of competing demands from sovereign governments.”
Mr. Turkewitz is saying that we cannot relax our laws for internet players like Google – especially given its role in an “internet of Backpage, of ISIS recruitment, of cyber-bullying, of phishing, of ransomware and revenge porn, of cyber-espionage, of trafficking in counterfeit and pirate content.” The majority of the Court did agree, with Justice Abella stating “The answer turns on classic interlocutory injunction jurisprudence” as if to say, “What’s the problem here?”
The only other point I’ll raise is about the dialogue between majority and minority about necessity and efficacy. The majority believed the order to be necessary and effective and the minority did not, neither side spending any time explaining the divergence. Here is the statement that encapsulates the minority view:
The most that can be said is that the Google Order might reduce the harm to Equustek which Fenlon J. found “Google is inadvertently facilitating” (para. 152). But it has not been shown that the Google Order is effective in doing so. As Google points out, Datalink’s websites can be found using other search engines, links from other sites, bookmarks, email, social media, printed material, word-of-mouth, or other indirect means. Datalink’s websites are open for business on the Internet whether Google searches list them or not. In our view, this lack of effectiveness suggests restraint in granting the Google Order.
Given our courts are charged with protecting rule of law and given the impossibility of totally controlling the internet, this statement is downright depressing. Very simply, we must have resort to harm reduction because it is all we will ever have. Without harm reduction, we have no rule of law.
Google Inc. v. Equustek Solutions Inc., 2017 SCC 34 (CanLII).