Everybody has searched for themselves on Google, to see what comes up, and if you haven’t searched for yourself then you probably should because you never know what you’re going to find! Admittedly, if you haven’t done anything that is likely to build up your online persona, you may find very little other than your old Myspace account, your current Facebook and perhaps a Linkedin account.
You have, however, more than likely had a quick search for a friend or a work colleague that you do suspect of having a more prolific online profile – perhaps because they’ve done modelling, a sport, or have acted on stage – I once found a woman that I had just begun dating on Google, because she had previously been working as a Lindsay Lohan lookalike! Google is truly a treasure trove!
It is not a surprise then, that for quite some time people have been making requests to be forgotten on search engines, often by making claims that their ‘right to be forgotten’ is a phenomenally important human right. After all, if you are going to be able to properly control and manage your digital footprint, now and in the future, then you need to be able to limit and appeal against the things about your past that appear on the net… personal discretion.
This becomes especially true, if something is appearing in search engines that a person feels represents them unfairly, negatively, or is perhaps just plain wrong. An obvious example of this is the case of Marta Bobo a Spanish gymnast whose life was misrepresented in the newspaper El País in 1984. Those untruths about the gymnast were a fading memory when suddenly, due to the old editions of the newspaper being digitally archived and made available on the internet, her unfair misrepresentation was once again in circulation.
In May of last year The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled (in a milestone ruling for online privacy) that internet users do have a legal right to be forgotten. The ruling, that was strongly opposed by Google (see also article on Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt), means that in Europe search engine providers can now be held accountable for the search results that they display, and must stop providing results at the request of individuals with a legitimate reason.
In the past, removals from search results were limited to cases where courts had found that a website contained information deemed illegal, such as in defamation cases or web sites containing child abuse, pirated material, malware, or personal information of a sensitive nature (such as bank details). Google feels that this was an adequate way to deal with search results, for the reason that further limiting information due to personal reasons amounts to internet censorship.
David Drummond (senior VP and legal officer at Google) summed up Google’s feelings on the matter by referring to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Rights in an article he wrote for The Guardian,
‘We’ve taken this approach because, as article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.’
The truth, it would seem, is quite different. The ECJ did not rule that appropriate current information has to be censored – quite the opposite – if something is true and has relevance, then freedom of the press to cover it is still encouraged, and it is only when relevant cause for concern is proven that an individual’s request for the removal of a search result need be met. The alarming thing is that, when The Guardian reported on the story back in May of last year, Google did block search results for that particular article, leading to an admission by Google that perhaps it hadn’t handled the court ruling appropriately.
The fact that Google is, on the one hand, claiming human rights against censorship as a reason to not hide search results, but is then caught hiding the results for an article that they don’t want people to see, is ironic at best, and an outright disgusting abuse of power at most. I will leave that up to you to decide.
In July of last year it was reported by the Wall Street Journal that Google had blocked around 100,000 extra web sites from appearing on its search engines – that means that in just 8 weeks Google had received personal requests for exclusion for 100,000 (or more) individual search results – all those cases had to be processed for validity, and then pulled from the search engine’s results. This action requires time and manpower, but most importantly costs money, and that is likely another deciding factor in making Google so staunchly against the ruling, and why it is bitterly defending its right not to apply the ruling to the ‘.com’ domain.
Who agrees with Google? Many people feel that search engines such as Google should not have to be the censors of the internet. After all, Google only provides a search result for a web site that already exists, and so there is a strong argument that says “why shouldn’t individuals get the information about themselves that they don’t want on the internet pulled from the website where it actually resides?” This is a fair point, and because of the time and money it will inevitably take Google to process these requests, many people are worried that it will end up hiding search results without fully investigating the reasons, opening it up to abuse by criminals, politicians or businessmen who want to hide a crooked past.
A valid point indeed. If Google has this responsibility, then there is going to need to be some sort of regulation, because if left unregulated then the corporate interests of Google’s shareholders will inevitably lead to internet censorship at the hands of wrongfully granted requests. If you want to read more about the pro’s and con’s of the ECJ ruling, there is a fantastic article here in our archives.
According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), 61 percent of Americans do feel that ‘some kind of right to be forgotten legislation is necessary’ across the Atlantic , and who could blame them? Why shouldn’t American citizens also be allowed to have outdated, irrelevant or bogus information about themselves taken down?
Unfortunately that is going to be a while yet, because Google’s hand picked panel of 8 advisers (which were charged with the job of deciding whether it should be rolled out across the board) has decided that Google should not introduce the “right to be forgotten” in the US, despite EPIC’s findings. I suspect that decision will not last forever, and that Google will have to apply the ruling to the .com domain eventually. How long it will be, and whether it is truly in our best interest, however, is still very much up for debate.