Google ordered to cut links with the past

Erasing history: Should we all have the right to delete any embarrassing links to our past?

In a landmark decision, the EU has told Google its users have the ‘right to be forgotten’ so that online searches do not reveal unwanted details of their past. Could this lead to censorship?

Mario Costeja Gonzalez’s past was haunting him. In the 1990s he had had financial problems and his house was repossessed to pay off debts. A newspaper wrote about it and, 16 years on, the article appeared any time someone googled his name. Unable to move on, he decided to take the internet giant Google to court.

The case went all the way to the EU’s most senior judges at the European Court of Justice. This week it ruled in Mr Gonzalez’s favour. Groundbreaking laws will be introduced that give Europeans ‘the right to be forgotten’ or to tell search engines to remove negative links about them. While his aim for a low profile has failed, Gonzalez may have changed the internet forever.

The new laws will not affect the web pages that contain the information about a person, but they will target the search engines that are a major portal to the web pages. The court said that because search engines have so much power over what pages people visit, they act as ‘controllers’ of personal data, and so are responsible for protecting privacy.

The details of the laws are yet to be ironed out, but some groups are heralding them as a major triumph for individual liberty. The EU justice commissioner says it has brought data protection rules from ‘the digital stone age’ into the modern world, by giving people power over their online identities.

Yet many campaigners are worried that the laws will lead to censorship. The ruling says people can remove links they do not want others to see, so long as they are not in the ‘public interest’. But exactly what is and is not in the public interest is unclear. Could links about corrupt politicians or dangerous criminals be removed? The Index on Censorship group compares the new laws to someone ‘marching into a library and forcing it to pulp books.’

Google is also unhappy. It says it does not control data, but simply offers links to what is already freely available. While it does not need many staff for its search engine, it may now have to employ many more to deal with a ‘blizzard’ of public requests.

Links to the past

Some say this is a huge victory for individual users against the giant companies that control the web and we should applaud the EU’s decision. The internet has too much power over us by holding so much of our information, and this ruling is a long overdue first step to addressing the problem.

Yet campaigners say while the Court of Justice’s intentions were good, the decision sacrifices our right to the free access of information in order to protect a few people who wish to escape their past. If a person objects to Wikipedia, will it be blocked? There is no end to the harm that this clumsy ruling might do.

You Decide

  1. Is the ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling a good idea?
  2. ‘The internet is making the past unescapable and we are only just beginning to realise how big a problem this is.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. The European Court of Justice says that bad web links can be deleted so long as keeping them is not in the ‘public interest’. In pairs, think of five examples of when keeping links would be in the public interest.
  2. Using the New Scientist's piece on digital legacies in ‘Become an Expert’ for inspiration, write a diary entry from someone in the future who is using the net to understand people today. What impression would they have?

Some People Say...

“The ‘right to be forgotten law’ must necessarily infringe upon someone else’s right to remember.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I have nothing to hide, so how would this ruling affect me?
Even if nothing worries you now, things you write online and photos you upload could be on the internet forever and might cause you embarrassment in the future. The ruling would allow you to remove links to things you do not want people to see. However, anti-censorship groups worry that the law will be abused to cover up things that people have a right to know.
What other online privacy problems are there?
This year was the World Wide Web’s 25th birthday and its creator warned that governments and big companies are increasingly encroaching on our data. Whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that US spy agencies had been snooping on hundreds of millions of people’s data, and many think the issue has not yet been fully addressed.

Word Watch

Justice
The European Court of Justice makes rulings on EU law, but it is then up to each member country to interpret the court’s ruling. The court’s decisions are made by a panel of 28 judges, one from each EU member.
Forever
The ruling has sparked debate in other countries as to whether they should follow the same path. The ruling will also mean that search engines will have to put a great deal more time and effort into filtering search results than they currently do.
Books
The newspaper which wrote the story on Mario Costeja Gonzalez gained its information from public records. Index On Censorship complains this public information is now being removed from the public, and this creates a very worrying precedent.
Blizzard
Search engine companies say there is no telling how many people will make requests under the ‘freedom to be forgotten’ ruling, but it could mean that many more staff will have to be hired to deal with the issue. They say it is unfair that they will have to bear this cost.

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