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The Paris Lawyer Who Gives Google Nightmares

Shefet is part of a much larger movement in Europe pushing back against the power of the tech titans under the banner of the "right to be forgotten."
Jessica Vieux for NPR
Shefet is part of a much larger movement in Europe pushing back against the power of the tech titans under the banner of the "right to be forgotten."

Dan Shefet is an unlikely tech revolutionary. He's not a young math geek who builds driverless cars, nor does he promise to make a tech product for the masses. His crusade is different. The 63-year-old year old Shefet has staged an astonishingly effective campaign in Europe to thwart the torrent of fake news and damaging personal attacks that course through the Internet by taking on the tech giants.

The Paris-based Shefet packs a lot of energy into his compact frame of 5 feet 7 inches, and one can even find him sprinting across the streets as he gets from one meeting to the next in the city. He is on a mission to kill free speech — at least the way the United States understands it. He has one aim, and it is directed squarely at a select few in Silicon Valley.

"A handful of corporations have been raised to a level of legal untouchability hitherto only bestowed upon certain diplomatic missions and royalty," he says.

These might sound like the perishable musings of an armchair critic or an op-ed columnist. But Shefet has legal street cred.

He battled long and hard against Google in court in Paris. And surprisingly, in a defining moment in the battle over digital rights, Shefet came out the victor.

Now he is attracting attention in the United States, and his timing is impeccable. The growing backlash against tech giants globally and in this country — where fake news, election interference by Russia and recent revelations of the Cambridge Analytica breach — have led to demands for greater scrutiny of Facebook, Twitter and Google.

All this has made the Danish-born Shefet a free-speech-slaying jet-setter. He is the man to know if a country — whether a democracy, a dictatorship or a tribal kingdom — wants some control over what can live online within its borders.

His energy is matched only by his love of good food. Over a meal in a tony French restaurant — a delicate tuna tartare accompanied by a dry Chablis with apricot undertones — he talks about his journey. Almost everything he says is punctuated by self-deprecating jokes and an easy laugh, his blue eyes crinkling with mirth. But his playful demeanor doesn't conceal the gravity with which he describes the immense power of the Internet giants.

"How far can they control your life?" he says. "When does it go too far?"

For Shefet, there was a moment when it did go too far. And the fight was personal.

Shefet vs. Google: He wins

In 2013, Shefet had a plain-vanilla legal practice. He wrote employment contracts and analyzed intellectual property claims. That all changed, he says, when a client's vengeful enemy took to the Internet and created websites that attacked Shefet — claiming he was a member of the Serbian mafia.

The claim was so ludicrous that Shefet shrugged it off. But the pages quickly rose to the top of his Google search results. Some colleagues began to question Shefet openly, and he realized he couldn't ignore it anymore. He felt his reputation and his career might unravel.

Shefet obtained an order from a French court directing Google to stop highlighting the defamatory sites in search results for his name.

He hired a courier to serve the injunction at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

But nothing happened, he says. Google's lawyers ignored it.

"The pinnacle of arrogance is indifference," Shefet says. "They simply couldn't care less ... not even a bot response."

That would have been the end of the story if not for a dusty law, nearly two decades old, revived by the European Court of Justice soon after. Its directive asserts that people have a right to privacy, even on the Internet, and that search engines like Google must determine whether an individual's privacy right outweighs the public's right to know even correct information. And so, the "right to be forgotten" law for the Internet was born.

Buried near the midpoint of the 100-paragraph opinion was the legal ammunition that Shefet needed. The judges suggested there is an "inextricable link" between Google's Mountain View headquarters and any of its subsidiaries around the world. So Shefet made a novel legal argument: The child could be punished for the sins of its corporate parent. Meaning Google's Paris office, responsible for selling ads to French buyers, would have to pay for every day the California headquarters ignored Shefet's takedown request.

He sprinted to a French court and won. Google would face a fine of $1,200 a day, or obey. The company obeyed.

Shefet's victory signaled just how easy it might be to make the tech titan bend to one's will. And so the floodgates opened with private citizens, companies and governments around the world all seeking his counsel. He became an improbable hero.

The globe-trotting speech slayer

Shefet's penthouse office on Paris' Right Bank has bookshelves, lined with black leatherbound copies of French civil code. But they're obscured by trinkets from his new life that has taken him around the world. Shefet points to a wooden sculpture from Cuba — a hand clenched in a fist, but for a very large middle finger sticking up in the air. "It was a gift," he explains, as though he wouldn't have chosen it on his own. A bronze bust of Alexander the Great is set beside another gift, a statue of the Indian god Krishna, which he received when he traveled to Delhi — back when he was just beginning his global anti-Google crusade.

These days, Shefet is also reading a lot of paperbacks that lie strewn about his office. His current obsession is pre-World War II information warfare — reminiscent of the kind that is fought on the Internet these days.

"Propaganda is not new," he says. "Technology is just changing how it works."

Shefet's office is a quick walk from the Élysée Palace, France's White House. He fields calls from far-flung governments — Germany and France, Saudi Arabia and Singapore — seeking his counsel on how to censor extremism and hate speech online.

In Germany, he has advised Angela Merkel's administration on a hate speech law that she pushed through, which makes tech companies subject to fines of about $60 million if they break it. He is advising senators in France on a similar law being drafted there.

Shefet has clearly made his mark in Europe, where suspicion of Silicon Valley already runs deep and the idea of an absolute right to free expression is widely seen as damaging and absurd.

Since his victory against Google, Shefet is also hearing more from Americans. A state assemblyman wants advice on a bill that gives New Yorkers a right to privacy similar to what Europeans have. Consumer groups want expert testimony. And individuals reach out, too.

Not every case is as clear-cut as the false claims Shefet says were leveled against him. Some people end up in the news and want their Google searches changed so a single event doesn't dominate their digital life.

Several years ago, a man who was getting his Ph.D. was the victim of a brutal police assault. In 2017, he was on the job market and wanted Google to stop highlighting the news reports that included pictures of his bloodied face. He enlisted victims advocate groups to help, but Google declined. "I wish him the best in his efforts to heal and move on," Google counsel Erin Simon wrote in an email. "But Web Search merely reflects what exists on the Web."

Caroline Memnon sued her Manhattan law firm for discrimination, and the parties entered a confidential settlement. But when news of her case leaked to The New York Sun and law blogs, the Columbia Law grad feared her reputation was forever damaged.

"No firm would hire me, knowing about it," Memnon says. "I won the battle and lost the war."

Both she and the assault victim reached out to Shefet, who brainstormed arguments each could make to claim standing in Europe to sue Google. While it's far-flung, Shefet argues, they don't have a chance in the U.S.

It's different in the United States

Shefet is part of a much larger movement in Europe pushing back against the power of the tech titans under the banner of the "right to be forgotten."

The movement has achieved tangible results.

Since the 2014 landmark court ruling, Google says in a recent report, it has received requests to hide or delist about 2.4 million Web addresses in Europe. Some were fake news. Some were factually true. However, people cited in those pages made the case to Google that the stories harmed their privacy interests without serving the public interest. The search giant agreed to delist about 43 percent of those pages.

In the U.S., Google consents to such requests only in the rarest circumstances, typically requiring a court order.

Google's top privacy lawyer, Peter Fleischer, is based in Paris. The company sent him there to counter the movement Shefet helped build.

When NPR asked Fleischer if Americans should have the same right to Internet privacy that Europeans have, he says, "Clearly, they don't." What's more, he says, it's the wrong question. The right one is: "Can they? That's a legal question."

Fleischer doesn't want Americans to be seduced by the European option. He offers two arguments to make his point.

First, the U.S. — more so than any other country on earth — values free speech. So much so that it's a First Amendment right. What Europe is doing, he says, "would be inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution."

And second, Europe's new laws are creating an Internet that people can exploit to hide the truth, Fleischer says. As examples, he cites people with criminal records who want to bury accurate news reports; lawyers and dentists who want to hide the complaints of unhappy customers; business owners obsessed with projecting a certain image.

"I think a lot of people would think that's troubling — to think that the more wealthy and powerful in the world can use this tool to polish up their online reputations far more than the average Joe," Fleischer says.

He downplays Shefet and says he is familiar with his work, from reading about him in the press.

Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., Charles Tobin, a prominent media lawyer, says he is very familiar with Shefet and fears his message cuts against a transparency society. "I do not agree with hardly anything he says. Can you imagine O.J. going to court after his acquittal, or President Clinton after impeachment — trying to scrub the record?" However, he has invited Shefet to speak at an American Bar Association session in Paris about speech and privacy.

Google declined to say how many requests the company receives or honors from Americans seeking to remove a search result.

One New York man tried. But to no avail.

He asked not to be named for fear of further damaging his reputation, having lost his career after his name was cited in a news story about a Wall Street investment firm that was misleading investors. He has since asked for and received letters from both the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission confirming his innocence and he has shared them with Google. But despite these affirmations, which he showed NPR, Google would not remove the article from search results. It has been eight years and he still can't get a job. He and his wife want children, but his entire life is on hold.

He mailed a letter to the home of Google CEO Sundar Pichai pleading his case: "Please put yourself in my shoes, and ask how would you feel if your career and entire life's work and savings all were destroyed ... would you not morally and legitimately expect Google to do the right thing ... ?"

Pichai did not respond. One of the Google chief's lawyers, Lee-Anne Mulholland, did write to the New York man in an email: "[W]hile we are very sympathetic to your story, we are unable to remove [the] article."

Google declined to comment further on the case.

"Google is not unable," says Shefet, who bristles at that notion. "They are unwilling. Why do they pretend it's about free speech? There's no principle involved."

The aspiring peacemaker

But Shefet does not want the tech titans to see him as the enemy. Though he has made his mark in the opposition, he says he wouldn't mind being a peacemaker, a broker between Silicon Valley and people who feel they've been harmed by the sludge on the Internet.

"He's having so much more fun," says Tom Hoyem, Shefet's high school teacher, who explains that Shefet wasn't always as jovial all those years ago. In fact, he was a very serious child, perhaps because he came from a broken home, Hoyem posits: "Dan was too old when he was 16."

Dining at a small Paris pub, Shefet talks about how his family shapes his worldview. When Shefet was a young boy, his parents split up. It was at a time when almost no one divorced. "They hated each other — or, I should say, my mom hated my dad," he recalls. "I wasn't allowed to see him."

For many years they had no contact, which made Shefet sad because, he says, his father was a vast ocean of knowledge, a repository of obscure facts and insightful answers.

Fast-forward 15 years and not only did the animosity fade but, in a surprise twist, Shefet's parents remarried.

The lesson is not simply that there's a thin line between love and hate; but, as Shefet puts it, "Everyone is always right. No one fights for their side when they believe they're wrong. So, if you can see how your adversaries believe they're right, then you can come to an understanding."

He hopes it takes the titans and their disaffected users less time than it took his mom and dad.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.
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