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The Right to Be Forgotten

The European Union Court of Justice on 12th May, 2014 found Google culpable in a legal dispute with a Spanish man who claimed he should have the right to have personal data about himself removed from Google searches connected to his name. It was a surprise decision with far reaching implications. However, it is unlikely the law will be implemented with much success.

The Spanish man who managed to get his case heard at the highest court in Europe found an entry in a Google search of his name about the sale of his house in order to raise money to pay a debt. This personal information was several years old. The man felt that he had a right to privacy over his past, that he had a ‘right to be forgotten’. The court found in his favour and has ordered Google to allow people who apply to have ‘irrelevant’ and outdated data to be removed about them.

Google has responded so far by doing nothing more than saying they will look into the issue.

On the one hand, the average internet user might be shocked by how Google and other key internet players mine information from users to provide a ‘targeted advertising service’. Google has processes to read gmails, remember search terms and generally spy on you, especially if you stay logged into a Google account. Moreover, the actual search results most people get are manipulated – rather than the actual top 10, they get a list compiled by Google based on previous searches.

This is the goose spitting out golden eggs. Playing with the presentation of search results, making ads look like normal listings, putting in their own services in the side column are the ways the company has become so rich.

Against such a backdrop of manipulation and surveillance it is easy to feel sympathy for the individual who feels wronged by these practices. We have rights about the information government holds on us, why don’t we have similar rights for the internet? The option to opt out seems a fair suggestion.

On the other hand, perhaps the man’s complaint should be with the publisher of the information pertaining to his house sale and its reasons. Google provides links to content – in this case the content wasn’t published by Google. Penalising Google is a little bit like killing the messenger.

Stacked up against the principle of privacy is the equally crucial principle of freedom of expression. The European Union Court’s decision could be regarded as censorship. After all does it mean that anyone can start censoring what search results are shown merely be claiming the data is irrelevant or old? There seems plenty of opportunity for people to abuse this law, and even for black hat SEO workers to ‘attack’ the competition.

There is also the historical point to be made. Removing links to data is like hiding information that may be of vital importance to future generations. Throwing a blanket over something could be a conspiracy.

As you can see the arguments are persuasive on both sides. What is surprising is that the judges in the European Court must have thought they were making a big impact on the digital media in Europe. Google could just remove its business presence from Europe and then ignore the ruling. They also can hold up the card of diminished accountability as they deliver millions of search results every day – how can they get an algorithm which will work 100% of the time? The internet is already too big to police.
The European Court ruling in 2010 that all sites must flag up its cookie policy has only been adopted by a small percentage of sites worldwide and nobody has been punished for failing simply to have an opt out pop up on their site. It is a ruling with no teeth.

Google will make the right noises. What they won’t do is give you a simple contact form where you can contact them with your complaint. Just try finding out the email address for Google? They listen, they don’t pick up the phone.