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Opinion When search engines omit results, our rights are jeopardized

Katherine Maher is executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation which administers Wikipedia

With the development of the Internet, the marvels of science fiction became real. Like Asimov's galactic encyclopedia or Borges's ever-expanding library, information was suddenly accessible to anyone with a connection and a device. The only constraints were the frontiers of our knowledge and the limits of our curiosity.

But today as the Internet grows, parts of it are quietly disappearing. Around the world, courts are requiring search engines to omit selected results. This trend chips away at freedom of expression and the right to information online, and creates ugly precedents that could jeopardize the future of our open and free Internet.

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Google v. Equustek, a case before the Canadian Supreme Court, illustrates the risks we face. The case involves Equustek Solutions Inc., a Burnaby, B.C.-based manufacturer of networking technology. Equustek sued another company – Datalink Technologies Gateway Inc. – for stealing trade secrets and marketing a competitive product online. Although Equustek's suit was successful, Datalink defied a court order to remove the competitive product.

Related: Supreme Court hears arguments in case pitting Google against B.C. firm

Related: Apple court order: The battle between security and privacy

In response Equustek went to Google to plead their case. Google voluntarily agreed to remove more than 300 links to search results pointing to Datalink on google.ca. When this effort failed to completely remove Datalink's product from the Web, Equustek took Google to court.

The case is now before the Canadian Supreme Court. Equustek's goal is to make Google omit Datalink results in every single Google search, worldwide. If Equustek is successful, Google would be required to continually and proactively monitor all searches and remove links to the Datalink pages in question, no matter where the search originated.

Why does this matter? This ramifications go far beyond a case of corporate competition. If Equustek is successful, the precedent could profoundly threaten equal access to knowledge worldwide.

If any country can demand the worldwide removal of search results, vast sections of history, science and culture could disappear from the global Internet. This could infringe on our ability to learn about the history of Tiananmen Square, the potential medical properties of cannabis, the discoveries of Darwin, or unsavoury allegations against the U.S. president-elect.

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If every country had the chance to punch memory holes in the Internet, we would swiftly find ourselves with history scrubbed of essential records. Politicians could challenge ugly but accurate charges. Corporations could erase histories of fraud and double-dealing. The implications are unprecedented.

At Wikipedia, we understand exactly how this outcome would damage the fabric of global knowledge. Wikipedia is written by volunteer editors from across the world who collaborate to write neutral, unbiased encyclopedia articles. If search engines remove links to the reliable sources Wikipedia editors depend on, entire paragraphs of history will go unwritten. If articles have to pass muster with the most censorious and litigious among us, Wikipedia would experience a profound chilling effect. The production and dissemination of knowledge would be restricted by the whims of every petty ideologue and thin-skinned autocrat.

Unfortunately, the Equustek case is emblematic of a broader global trend. In 2014, a Spanish court decision established the so-called Right to Be Forgotten in the European Union. Last year, an anonymous French citizen filed a request under this decision, forcing a major search engine to remove links to a French Wikipedia article detailing a political scandal over Angolan arms sales.

We urge the Canadian Supreme Court to reconsider the order against Google, and we encourage Equustek to use the courts to challenge the people or companies at the root cause of the alleged harm, rather than an expeditious third party.

The short-term solution Equustek seeks comes with grave cost. It would be a terrible day if Canadians found the Internet limited by a decision of their highest court's own making. Instead, the court should protect full access to our shared global network of knowledge.

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