Google Not Responsible for Search Results, B.C. Supreme Court Rules

by Matt Klassen on June 24, 2015

They say that once something hits the Internet it’s there forever, virtually out of reach, and in the case of embarrassing, scandalous, defamatory or otherwise private or personal content; that online information has the potential to haunt you for the rest of your life. It’s enough to make you wonder why anyone posts anything on the Internet at all.

It was this very ethical quagmire that struck the European Union last year, when Europe’s top court established the public’s so-called “Right to be Forgotten,” that is, the right to not have certain information continue to be available for general consumption on the Internet. In order to establish such protocols the EU went after search engine companies, most notably Google, demanding that certain universal resource locators (URLs) be removed from search results, not removing the content from the Internet per se, but removing the most convenient ways of accessing the information.

But while such a controversial decision that spurred on by one Spanish man’s lawsuit regarding information of a long passed bankruptcy, it seems that a similar situation here at home has garnered the opposite decision, as a British Columbia Supreme Court judge has ruled that Google is not responsible for the publication of defamatory material online.

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.

But poor choices and online ignorance aside, there also exists a whole new realm of disturbing and defamatory content popping up on the web, as the Internet provides the perfect environment for the dissemination of anonymous opinion and, unfortunately so, lacks the checks and balances to separate pure hate and stupidity from actual legitimate content and opinion. Today not only are we dealing with cyber bullying and the most odious of practices, revenge porn (where personal photos and other sensitive information are used against someone following the breakdown of a relationship), but anyone can post defamatory content about anyone else, and true or not it has the power to destroy lives.

So that leaves us in this particular ethical quagmire, who is ultimately responsible for the content on the Internet? In Europe regulators have decided that since it’s impossible to stop people from posting things on the Internet, the next best thing is to stop Internet users from being able to access such content by removing them from web searches, all but erasing them from the annuls of online history.

But is it Google’s responsibility to police the Internet? As much as I see the need for online policing and while I see the value in one’s right to be forgotten, the simple fact is that I agree with the conclusion of B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lauri Ann Fenlon that Google is simply a “passive instrument” here, providing a search service that blindly provides users with results for their search queries. The algorithms deploy web crawling bits of code that generate the results, and these algorithms are, by their very nature, amoral, thus the results they generate cannot be used to implicate Google. It would be like blaming your mail carrier for delivering your overdue credit card bills, a case of simply wanting to shoot the messenger.

Now that said, Google has announced it will attempt to honour requests for the removal of links to information, particularly requests for explicit images shared without consent and other highly sensitive data that may surface in search results. But that again raises the question, is this Google’s responsibility, or is there some other regulatory body that should be tasked with policing the Internet in this way?

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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