You had a little too much of a good time on that spring break in college, leading to a bad decision resulting in an arrest for disorderly conduct. OR YOU HAD a run-in with the tax man more than a decade ago, resulting in your house going up for auction. Even though these issues have long since been resolved, an online search of your name still shows this information. Ouch! Should the search-engine service be required to take down the link?
That was the question put to the European Court of Justice, the European Union’s highest court. Mario Costeja González had asked Google (Google Spain) not to display links to notices in a newspaper published in 1998 regarding his former tax situation. Dismaying but not surprising to some, the Court asked Google to do as he asked. (Court of Justice of the European Union, 2014)
With its ruling the court confirmed that existing European law already includes something, albeit in a limited form, that privacy advocates and the European Commission have long sought: a digital right to be forgotten. But wait, there’s more! It also said that search-engine operators (in this case Google) do not merely display links to already published personal information. They also process that information and allow profiles of individuals to be compiled. This, the court said, is covered by existing European privacy laws, dating from 1995. It makes no difference, said the judges, that the search engines might do the processing on servers outside Europe. (V. Skouris, 2014)
Unsurprisingly, the decision, which cannot be appealed against, has set off alarms in the internet community. Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has said the “right to be forgotten” ruling, which compels Google to remove links requested by consumers, was wrong.
“A simple way of understanding what happened here is that you have a collision between a right to be forgotten and a right to know. From Google’s perspective, that’s a balance,” said Schmidt. “Google believes, having looked at the decision which is binding, that the balance that was struck was wrong.” (Baliga, 2014)
Doomsayers are always the first on opinions, and frankly being one of them at this time, I am a bit wary and alarmed at the ruling as well. As with many laws there are unintended consequences that can follow. How far does the interpretation go? What about websites such as Angie’s list, where consumers rely on others for advice on services and products? I compare it with hiring and firing of employees. Try and ask another person for references regarding former employees. Very few are willing to portray the truth if the employee was less than stellar for fear of a libel suit against them or their company.
Looking closely at the judgment one notes that the court did not establish a broad right for Europeans to be forgotten. The judges did not require the newspaper to take down the notices in question. Google also does not have to stop linking to all personal information, but only to data that are “inadequate, irrelevant…or excessive”(V. Skouris, 2014), and if there is no strong public interest in having easy access to the information in question. Google is permitted to deny a request to take a link down. If denied, then one may be forced to go the way of litigation.
One question–as put to so many laws on the books–arises. Can this law be effectively enforced? This ruling is for search engines bound by European law, not world law. The decision could very well deny people access to information that may be important. When hiring or researching someone in the financial or child-care industry for example, or someone running for public office, one may wish to consider past decisions, to put it mildly. Of course there are already companies (e.g. reputation.com) that specialize in cleaning up your internet presence so while generally helpful, one should already be wary about the integrity of the internet search.
In my opinion (note I used opinion so as not to end up in litigation over my blog) the court’s decision has done a marvelous thing. It has revived the debate on whether the internet should be regulated. The United States includes free-speech protections in the First Amendment (although in the era of Political correctness, one could argue of the eroding rights of free speech, but that’s for another day). Blocking access to even the most damaging information—mug shots, pictures from your college spring break or worse — can prove difficult if not impossible. Online news accounts and their footprints are even tougher to leave behind.
What to do? As my dear Mother was forever reminding me–never put anything in writing (and I will add pictures, tweets, instagrams to her advice—you get the idea) that you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see. Old-fashioned wisdom that holds more truth than ever in this day of show all.