Have you ever Binged or Googled for your own name, address or phone number? It’s good to do it now and then, and the result may be shocking. You don’t have to be a celebrity to be mentioned on the net. Most of us occur on the net in quite many places, often a lot more than we imagine.
You can decide how much you reveal to the public in the profiles of your own accounts. But that’s not the full picture. Every time you participate in something under your own name, it may be published on the net, with or without your consent. This kind of publicity is hard to track, and next to impossible to control.
This is what the European court of justice (ECJ) tried to control in a ruling in May 2014. In short, a man from Spain found previously published data to be embarrassing and outdated. The site refused to take down the data and Spanish authorities ruled that there was no legal ground to demand deletion of the lawfully published content. The European court did however rule in favor of him and demanded Google to hide these pages in search results. According to the court, Google has to delete “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” data from search results.
I’m an advocate of digital privacy and our rights to control our digital footprint. And this is sort of a win for privacy-fighters. But I have mixed feelings about this decision and will not open any sparkling bottles. I think the track that ECJ has entered will turn out to be a dead end.
First of all, trying to create ways to control net content is good. We are dealing with a delicate balance between freedom of speech and peoples’ right to privacy. But most of us probably agree that a net totally without content control isn’t desirable.
But trying to solve this problem with the search engine companies is like creating a giant reality distortion field. The data does not go anywhere even if it’s hidden in Google searches. As a matter of fact, all you have to do is to use a non-European version of Google. And that’s not all. Google is even planning to inform users that items have been hidden from the search result they are viewing. Convenient with a reminder that you should search again with the US version, isn’t it?
Search engines are of great importance for what pages we find and read. But many are probably overestimating this importance now when social media is getting more popular. Nowadays we do not only find our stuff by searching, a significant part is virally spreading links. These links also bypass the reality distortion field totally.
The right to be forgotten is a great principle. But I think it should be restricted to the actual content and not services that help you find it. What we need is a globally working system for content take-down requests. These requests need to be approved by some kind of authority and the system must have built-in safeguards against misuse for censorship. Yes, keep in mind the delicate balance between freedom of speech and privacy. The neutrality of search engines should at the same time be controlled and guaranteed. If something is wrong, let’s fix reality instead of creating a reality distortion field.
Congratulations anyway to Mario Costeja González who won the case against Google. That’s an achievement even if the outcome is questionable. And the funny thing is naturally that you would have no clue who Mario Costeja González is, and that his house had to be sold to pay debts, without this thing called right to be forgotten.
BTW, if your search turned up something you don’t like and you are a European citizen, then you can continue to Googles removal process. We don’t know yet how this will work when the masses start to request removals. The process will probably be an uphill battle, so don’t hold your breath. It will be interesting to see how this develops.
Image by stockimages @ freedigitalphotos.net
This is a guest post by Saara Jantunen, a researcher at the Finnish research Agency…
June 22, 2017