As part of its sanctions against Russia, the European Union is imposing sweeping new restrictions on search engines and social media companies' ability to share content from Russian state media outlets RT and Sputnik.
In a notice to Google, the European Commission said it is requiring search engines to remove all search results that contain links to or even "short textual descriptions" of RT and Sputnik content. It's also requiring social media platforms to block posts linking to or rebroadcasting content from either outlet.
While Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and TikTok are already blocking both outlets inside of Europe, forcing Google to remove search results — even to news stories that link to or describe RT and Sputnik stories — is an extreme escalation. The block on RT and Sputnik on search applies to "any link to the Internet sites of RT and Sputnik" and "any content of RT and Sputnik, including short textual descriptions, visual elements and links to the corresponding websites."
The commission said these actions are necessary because "RT and Sputnik have to date gravely distorted and manipulated facts and have repeatedly and consistently targeted European political parties, especially during election periods, as well as civil society, asylum seekers, Russian ethnic minorities, gender minorities, and the functioning of democratic institutions in the Union and its Member States."
If Google were to continue to surface links to those outlets, the commission wrote, it would "facilitate the public’s access to the content of RT and Sputnik, or contribute to such access."
The social media restrictions forbid any posts that "broadcast" content from RT and Sputnik, but, unlike in search, journalists do get a limited exemption on social media if they are "informing their readers/viewers objectively and completely." Even that exemption has limits: "If another media outlet purports to inform its readers/viewers, but in reality its conduct aims at broadcasting Russia Today or Sputnik content to the public or has that effect, it will be in breach of the prohibition laid down in the Regulation."
The emergency measures underscore a fundamental difference in the regulation of speech online in the EU as compared to the U.S. EU citizens have had the right to remove sensitive information about themselves from search — "the right to be forgotten" — for years.
Google did not immediately respond to Protocol's request for comment.
The commission acknowledges that these rules may substantially restrict free speech inside the EU, but writes, "the right to free speech can be restricted for legitimate public interests in a proportionate manner."