Google takes first step to enable ‘right to be forgotten’

ECJ ruling means Europeans may request to have links relating to them removed

Google last week released its new application process by which Europeans may request that links relating to them be removed from its search engine. Photograph: Reuters

Google last week released its new application process by which Europeans may request that links relating to them be removed from its search engine. Photograph: Reuters

 

Google last week released its new application process by which Europeans may request that links relating to them be removed from its search engine.

This followed a ruling in the European Court of Justice (ECJ) last month mandating that Europeans have a limited, but groundbreaking, “right to be forgotten”.

The judgment had indicated some such response from the search giant would be needed. In the ruling, the ECJ said Google could be deemed a data controller under EU law, which gives citizens greater, and as yet largely undetermined, protections and perhaps, over time, options over the use of their data in and by search engines.

The immediate result of the specific case meant, in some limited circumstances, Google could be required to remove information about an individual that was out of date yet might continue to have a negative impact on the individual.

Such a right has been dubbed the right to be forgotten – though it is a very limited application of the term’s broader scope.

According to the new Google process , if the company decides not to remove a disputed link, a citizen can then raise the application with the data protection authority in his or her EU member state.

It’s a clumsy process, but it’s a start in a long-overdue debate.

It has been claimed that the ruling is an infringement on the rights of the press, a limitation on freedom of speech, and a step that will give greater comfort to the rich and powerful. But hang on. Google is an index. It isn’t “the press”; it aggregates links. All the stories and other content published by any media site is still all there, online, and searchable if a person simply goes to the website of the media outlet. It’s just the link that might be removed.

It is also hard for me to understand how anybody can equate link removal with a limitation of freedom of speech (a freedom that we do not actually have in Ireland or UK, or as a right in Europe, by the way).

Rights

Even under US law, I can’t see how removing a link to existing content threatens freedom of speech or the press, for the same reasons noted above.

And national laws that recognise the rich and powerful have greater accountability. That’s why defamation is harder to prove for a public figure, because it is weighed against public interest.

So it is farcical to think that, across the EU, either Google or data protection controllers are going to rush to allow paedophiles, fraudsters, celebrities or politicians to remove links to media stories they find awkward and embarrassing. Equally, public interest should not extend to the personal life of the average citizen.

So why do we simply assume – much less accept with little questioning– that by and large, all online information on everyone anywhere should be indexed and so easily searchable, whether or not it is true, irrelevant, outdated, or inappropriate?

Those are the criteria that Google says can trigger the removal of a link, and that informed the opinion of the ECJ.

As it is, search engines do not respect national laws that already allow for some offences to be expunged from someone’s record after a period of time.

Few of us, especially those around longer than the internet’s existence, ever guessed that such vast agglomerations of information on and about us, on everything from our shopping habits to personal details to comments made on long ago would eventually be dumped online on instantly searchable open access.

Or, that, based on still-clumsy algorithms, search engines would produce what is in effect, personal profiling in a crude, often inaccurate, form. It might seem harmless – but the first page of search returns, often full of errors, misleading content or embarrassments, has bec- ome the de facto annex to one’s resume.

The larger question is, why do the people whose data this is have so little say in what is indexed, how that information is prioritised, and how it is used? Why don’t we have more ability to more easily remove what we don’t want there? Especially when large corporations make money off of it, with no payback to me.

The conversation on this much broader and critical issue has – at least, and at last – been kickstarted by the ECJ ruling. Google’s request form is an important, if tiny, first step.

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