EU Demands Google Uphold the Right to be Forgotten

by Matt Klassen on June 6, 2014

While Google was no doubt dismayed about the decision by the European Union’s top court to uphold the Right to be Forgotten online, that is, the right to have information available online not haunt a person for the rest of their life, the challenge now for the search engine giant and EU regulators alike is how this ruling will be implemented and enforced.

Stemming from one Spanish man’s lawsuit against Google for a 16-year old newspaper article about his bankruptcy, the court order has left both regulators and the search engine giant right in the centre of the quagmire of freedom of information versus the right to privacy, and while Google has admittedly played fast and loose with people’s privacy in the past, I, for one, feel the company has been unfairly treated in this case.

The bottom line is Google does not disseminate information on the Web, it simply connects users to the information they want. The information itself is the property (and the commensurate headache) of the issuing party. Simply put, if Google didn’t exist, if the Web didn’t exist, the news article detailing one Spanish man’s bankruptcy would still exist, meaning the only thing Google is guilty of in this case is making extant information more easily accessible, and even with privacy concerns in mind, I do believe accessibility is still something we all want.

There’s no question in my mind that many of us have something we’d like to be “forgotten” online; some embarrassing photos, some questionable search queries, some angry rants, some poor choices made perhaps under the influence of a beverage or two. But the problem with the Internet is that at its core it’s predominantly a public forum, not a private sounding board, and thus one of the implicit permissions online users give is that when they enter the public sphere, the content they place there will be publicly accessible.

Now certainly there are areas of the Internet where some measure of privacy is expected and granted, email for instance, but even there users need to be aware that often times electronic communications are easily intercepted, and there’s not much, legally speaking, that you can do about it.

Once again though, while I fully admit that Google has not been kind to privacy considerations in the past, this ruling is attempting to swing the pendulum too far the other direction. Google operates on the philosophy that all publicly accessible information should be just that, accessible by the public, and until Google crosses the line and releases information that is protected by a modicum of legitimate expectation of privacy (passwords, financial information etc…), I don’t think anyone has anything to complain about.

The problem with the ruling by the EU is twofold: First, it puts unrealistic demands on Google, which again does not disseminate or own any of the information, but simply services as an intermediary bridge to said data. Google now has to find a way of blocking particular hits from its search query algorithm, results that the EU defines as “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” information, a herculean task indeed.

Second, for those here in North America at least, it tramples on our right to freedom of information. There are concerns that granting the Right to be Forgotten will simply open the door to baseless deletion requests, potentially encroaching on people’s freedom of speech and, of course, the right to freely access publicly available information.

In the end, while I feel for the Spaniard who claims Google’s search results regarding his previous bankruptcy continue to haunt him today, that information was published in a publicly accessible newspaper at the time, and thus remains publicly accessible. If the story was made in error or is perhaps salacious or defamatory, there are certainly steps he can take, but other than that, it’s not really Google’s problem. Simply put, if I could go to a local Spanish library and still find a copy of that same newspaper article on microfiche (look it up) would we be holding the library to the same standard that we are now holding Google?

For the rest of us, let me leave you with this simple preventive step: If you don’t want something publicly accessible on the Internet, don’t post it on said Internet.

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“Right to be Forgotten” Strikes BBC as Google makes News Story Disappear —
July 4, 2014 at 5:41 am

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