By SETH J. FRANTZMAN Originally published at The Jerusalem Post
“An Internet search engine operator is responsible for the processing that it carries out of personal data which appear on web pages published by third parties.” With this innocuous language the Court of Justice of the European Union handed down a damaging and highly problematic ruling on May 13. As a result of the ruling, search engines such as Google may have to remove links at the request of individuals based on unclear rules, that may result in a massive damage to the public’s right to information, and undermine the very freedom and nature of the Internet.
The case was the result of one Mario Costeja Gonzalez, a Spanish citizen who lodged a complaint with the Spanish Data Protection Agency claiming that results from Google would show links to a newspaper from 1998 that included an announcement of a real estate auction for the recovery of debts from Gonzalez. The plaintiff claimed that the newspaper should be required to remove or alter the pages, and that since the case was “irrelevant” in the present, and he had apparently paid his debts, Google should remove any link to the page.
The Spanish court split the difference; claiming that the newspaper had legally published the details of the auction in 1998, but that Google should remove the links. The court claimed that the information displayed in search results “potentially concerns a vast number of aspect of his [Gonzalez’s] private life” and that the “effect of the interference with the person’s rights” was problematic since the Internet is so ubiquitous today. The court did hold that “inasmuch as the removal of links from the list of results could, depending on the information at issue, have effects upon the legitimate interest of Internet users potentially interested in having access to that information,” a “fair balance” should be sought between the right to privacy and the public’s “legitimate” interest.
Google reacted quickly, setting up a method by which people could demand links be removed, and over 12,000 people flooded them with requests in one day. Newspaper accounts noted “it remains to be seen how Google will determine which links violate a person’s privacy.” Professor Fred Cate of Indiana University told The New York Times that this creates “an unworkable situation.” Currently Google is limiting its requests to Europeans.
Some commentators have pointed out that the requests only apply to search results; not the original material. So for instance, a man who murdered a dozen people but has since gone through the European justice system and done his “life in prison” of 15 years (the EU average), could expunge the results from Google, but the original newspaper articles relating to his killing spree could still be found, perhaps at some dusty library. Since search engines today are, in effect, our main gateways to information, that means that he can effectively expunge his record. It is like the card catalogs of libraries in days of old: Would we remove a card from the catalogue but not the book on the shelf, simply because someone thinks the book paints them in a negative light? Many people see the advantages of this system. A Herald Tribune report noted the flood of requests included “a former politician wanted to delete links to a book he viewed as defamatory,” “an actor seeking to expunge links to articles about an affair with an underage girl” and a doctor “seeking to take down negative reviews.”
We can already see the implications of this. It is the criminals, the restaurant owners, the rapists and pederasts celebrating. No longer will their scandals be there for all to see. Now a woman wanting to enter the modeling business won’t be able to see the reviews by other women who went to, say, “Class AAA Modeling” and were subsequently sexually harassed and blackmailed by the proprietor.
Now the family with young children won’t be able to see the link to the apartment complex they want to move to where people reported a peeping tom; or people won’t get to know about the restaurant where the wait-staff curse at the customers. No one will be allowed to know about the certain politician who fled the US, where warrants for numerous sexual assaults of maids await him should he return.
ONE CAN understand that there are instances where a private individual wants online photos or links taken down. For instance one story referenced a woman whose daughter had been subjected to harassment when scantily- clad photos appeared on a website. Or another case of stolen identity, where a man was incorrectly identified as a criminal. The Internet is a Wild West of information, and much of it is lewd, rude and crude. Every website that maintains a “talkback” section must struggle with this problem (includingThe Jerusalem Post); how does one police content that is offensive to some but not others while maintaining certain levels of free speech?
One of the greatest impacts of the Internet has been the crowdsourcing that helps us learn about a variety of goods through online reviews. Websites like TripAdvisor or Yelp are great at helping the potential customer sort the good from the bad. To give another example, after our wedding my wife was asked to review the venue. She gave the DJ a negative review and then was bombarded by calls from him demanding we change the review. We learned from another wedding website that he had actually sued another couple, who had claimed he nearly ruined their wedding. His bullying would be easier if he could just fill out the form to remove the links to the bad reviews. One by one the lanterns that shed light on information will go out, so that only the “positive” is shown – and the public is left in the dark about the negative.
The EU is following in the footsteps of nefarious regimes such as Iran, China and Turkey that have subjected the Internet to “massaging” whereby whole websites like YouTube are restricted, due to a variety of excuses, from blasphemy to the fact that they dare to implicate the regime. We don’t want the Internet “massaged” and we don’t want our information filtered. There has been an information revolution and it is no surprise that it has been led by American technology and website entrepreneurs.
Dictators tremble at the power of the Internet. The EU often goes to unfortunate lengths in the false pursuit of “privacy,” which often puts the most powerful and most abusive behind a screen. Is it a surprise that abusive regimes in the Middle East such as the Saudis, as well as Holocaust deniers, have tried to use British courts to muzzle critics by accusing them of libel? Sweeping verdicts like the one handed down in mid-May are dangerous when they do not include clear guidelines; we should err on the side of the public’s right to information.
Check out Preston’s BBC article on this issue