In a ruling that surprised many yesterday, Europe’s top court ruled that search engines such as Google have to take down links to sensitive, private information if requested to do so. In the words of the European Court of Justice, people have the “right to be forgotten.”
The case started when a Spanish citizen requested that Google take down an old online article about him going into debt. Such information isn’t necessary or relevant to the public, and only served to embarrass and degrade the man’s reputation. The court agreed that Google has to take down the link, and that any search company has to do the same in a similar situation.
Google is, of course, disappointed with the ruling. It argued that it doesn’t provide the content or even manage the data — it just hosts the links within its search engine. Some internet privacy advocates see this as a major victory, even though the unsavory information would still exist out there despite the removal of the link. But beyond that, the scenario is a bit more complicated than it might seem.
For one thing, this ruling affects the EU, not America. That means Google and other search companies will have to operate differently in these areas, and develop different technologies and search algorithms depending on the region. Doing this will require lots of time and money, provided that the ruling becomes law. Additionally, the EU comprises many different countries, so national courts will interpret the ruling as they see fit — and not necessarily in the same way.
Another burden created by the situation is that Google and other search companies will have to allocate resources to fielding these requests. People can call or send letters or emails to Google requesting that a link be taken down, but Google then has to vet that request. The court’s ruling says Google is essentially the “controller” of the data in the links that result from searches; thus, Google has to determine whether the link someone requests to be taken down fits the criteria. Is it strictly personal information, or might it have some public value? Is it out of date or irrelevant? I think certain scenarios would be obvious — no one needs to know whether a man from Spain was in debt a decade ago. But other situations would be more difficult to judge. The problem here is that Google will essentially operate as that judge.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t trust Google to control information, or to act as a censor. Instead of reclaiming control over the internet, this ruling actually may end up wresting it away from users. It also seems obvious to predict that, if this becomes law, Google will be the target of law suits from people arguing that it made the wrong call in response to their request.
Right now, the closest thing the U.S. has to such a ruling is California’s “eraser” law, which, as of 2015, will allow minors to request that embarrassing pictures or evidence of youthful indiscretions be taken down. The actual law, California SB 568, requires “the operator of an Internet Web site, online service, online application, or mobile application to permit a minor who is a registered user of the operator’s Internet Web site, online service, online application, or mobile application, to remove, or to request and obtain removal of, content or information posted.” In theory that might sound okay, but it’s hard to imagine the practical success of the law. It will be interesting to see how both of these scenarios unfold, but I would think twice about celebrating a victory for privacy here.