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France orders Google to block Mosley orgy photos

In a landmark ruling, a French court has demanded that Google filter out links leading to images of an allegedly Nazi-themed sadomasochistic orgy involving British former Formula One racing mogul Max Mosley.

France orders Google to block Mosley orgy photos
A French court has ordered Google to block search results yielding images of a sadomasochistic orgy involving British former Formula 1 boss Max Mosley. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Google, which had strongly opposed Mosley's request, immediately announced that it would appeal a decision it fears will set a dangerous legal precedent for costly and heavy-handed automated censorship of the Internet.

"This decision should worry all those who defend freedom of expression on the Internet," said Daphne Keller, Google's legal representative in the case.

The appeal does not suspend the ruling, which Google now has two months to comply with. The court also fined Google a symbolic one euro and ordered the company to pay 5,000 euros ($6,700) in court costs.

Wednesday's ruling relates to nine images taken from a video of the orgy that was filmed by Britain's now defunct News of the World (NoW) tabloid.

Mosley's legal team failed to secure a broader ruling which would have also forced Google to block access to any further extracts from the video which may emerge in the future.

Mosley has won a string of legal battles related to the publication of the video, starting with a libel case against the NoW over its claim, in March 2008, that the orgy was Nazi-themed.

In 2011, a French court fined NoW's owner, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., 10,000 euros after ruling that Mosley's right to privacy had been infringed by the publication of the images in editions of the newspaper sold in France, which has one of the world's toughest privacy laws.

Those rulings however have failed to stop images from the orgy being widely circulated on the web and Mosley believes search engines have a duty to prevent users from accessing material deemed to have breached the law.

Google had argued that the construction of search result filters of the type requested by Mosley would threaten users' freedom of access to information while failing to remove the offending images from the Internet.

The world's most widely-used search engine says filters are inevitably clumsy mechanisms — one that blocks content related to the orgy could also block legitimate coverage of the court case, for example, Google argues.

Google said it had, at Mosley's request, already taken steps to ensure hundreds of pages whose content could be deemed to breach the law in some countries are excluded from its search results.

At the heart of the legal debate is the question over whether companies like Google should be obliged to play a role in policing the Internet. The company says no to that and believes its stance is supported by a European Union directive (law) on e-commerce which should take precedence over privacy law.

In a blog at the start of the court case in September, Keller argued: "We don't hold paper makers or the people who build printing presses responsible if their customers use those things to break the law. The true responsibility for unlawful content lies with the people who produce it."

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BUSINESS

Google flags higher ad rates in France and Spain after digital tax

Google has told customers that it will raise the rates for advertisements on its French and Spanish platforms by two percent from May to help offset the impact of a digital tax on profits.

Google flags higher ad rates in France and Spain after digital tax

France has collected the levy since 2019, and Spain since this year, under
pressure from voters to make US tech giants pay a greater share of taxes in
countries where they operate.

The ad rate increase is to “cover a part of the cost of conforming to laws
concerning taxes on digital services in France and Spain,” the internet giant
said in an e-mail seen by AFP.

In France, internet companies with more than 750 million euros ($895
million) in worldwide sales, and 25 million in France, must pay a three
percent tax on their French operations, notably advertising sales and
marketplace operations.

Spain also charges a three-percent tax on some of their businesses.

Jean-Luc Chetrit, head of the Union des Marques, an alliance of major
brands, said Google’s decision would “amputate the investment capacity of
brands at a time when all companies are going through an unprecedented crisis.”

Google did not respond to AFP’s requests for comment, but Karan Bhatia, its head of government affairs, warned in February that “Taxes on digital services complicate efforts to reach a balanced agreement that works for all countries.”

“We urge these governments to reconsider what are essentially tariffs, or
at least suspend them while negotiations continue,” he said.

Google as well as Apple, Facebook and Amazon – grouped together as “GAFA” – are in the crosshairs of European governments that accuse them of exploiting common market rules to declare all profits in the bloc in low-tax
jurisdictions such as Ireland or Luxembourg.

Critics say they are depriving national tax authorities of millions of euros even as they profit from a surge in online activities because of home-working and social distancing rules during the Covid-19 crisis.

The companies counter that they are being unfairly targeted by discriminatory levies.

Google logo
Google logo. Photo: Eva HAMBACH / AFP

Global deal?

Amazon had already responded to the French tax last October by raising the rates it charges France-based marketplace sellers by three percent.

Apple followed suit by raising the commission it charges developers who
sell apps on its platform not only in France, but also in Italy and Britain.

The French tax move on global digital companies made it a pioneer in the
struggle to find a fair fiscal system for internet multinationals whose tax
bill is often tiny compared to their income.

Contacted by AFP, Facebook said it had no plans to raise prices for ads in
France or Spain for now as it waited for a global accord on fiscal rules.

The French tax brought in 400 million euros to government coffers in 2019,
and the government applied the levy again last year despite pressure from the Trump administration to drop it.

With President Joe Biden in the White House, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – which is overseeing negotiations on a digital tax – has said it hopes a G20 finance ministers’ meeting in July will hammer out an agreement on the issue.

Last month, the new US Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen, said Washington
would no longer insist on a “safe harbour” clause that would effectively make participation in a global tax scheme optional, removing a key sticking point with EU officials.

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