Over a year ago, Europe’s highest court ruled that search engines were required to give citizens the “right to be forgotten” online. Under the ruling, Europeans who felt they were being misrepresented by search results that were no longer relevant or accurate (e.g. misdeeds committed as a minor or old financial matters) could ask search engines to delink the material to their identity, in the name of personal privacy.
However this perspective, applauded by privacy activists, has clashed with freedom of expression arguments against altering the historical record, and thus making information that was lawfully public no longer accessible.
In response to the original European ruling, search engines like Google began removing links only from European versions of their sites like the French Google.fr and the German Google.de, but not from Google.com which is considered its American site.
Recently however, the French data protection authority has ordered Google to remove links from its database entirely, across all locations. Google has refused and the dispute is likely to end up in European courts.
If other countries that have established a right to be forgotten also push for global adoption, this could have far-reaching consequences – Google would be required to remove links everywhere to satisfy regulators, compromising the wealth of information currently available on the Net.
Google’s global privacy counsel wrote in a blog post that “no one country should have the authority to control what content someone in a second country can access”.
Privacy advocates feel a global implementation of the fundamental right to privacy would be a huge win. It certainly can be done – Google already removes content globally when they receive a copyright takedown notice – it removes links to infringing content around the world. However, it is difficult to compare copyright law to privacy. There is certainly agreement between Europe and the U.S. as to what constitutes copyrighted content, but private information is not as clear. Should Google be left to determine what constitutes sensitive personal information or whether information about a reality TV star is about a private person or a public person that everyone should be able to search for?
As more and more information is gathered, posted and shared, search engines will clearly face increased privacy-related challenges in the future. Rather than addressing these in the courts, finding the right balance between privacy and information availability will require policy discussions between consumer advocacy groups, government and technology leaders. Our Net of the future depends upon such critical collaboration and an in-depth analysis of how far to go with ‘the right to be forgotten’.