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July 25, 2014

Europe Takes Google to Task Over the Right to be Forgotten


There are a lot of things that we wish we could forget and probably even more things that we want everyone else to forget. The Internet and social media has made that pretty much all but impossible. If you don’t believe me, just ask any politician. So much information is being gathered about you every time you visit a site. This is mostly for advertising reasons, but can be used for almost anything.

The right to be forgotten is a concept that has been discussed at some length and has actually been put into practice in the European Union (EU). It is most enforced in France and Argentina in recent years. This is a concept that stems from the desire of an individual to determine the development of his life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past. 

There has been some discussion about the viability of making the right to be forgotten into the status of an international human right. The uncertainty is due to the vagueness of the concept. There are concerns about it having an impact on the right to freedom of expression, its interaction with the right to privacy and whether creating a right to be forgotten would decrease the quality of the internet through censorship and a rewriting of history.

The fact of the matter is the Internet does not forget! Facebook and Twitter, to just name two, postings of mortifying photos, college pranks, announcements and pretty much anything else that you can think of, will live on in infamy. This is what has led to the concept of the right to be forgotten.

The European Court of Justice because the first legal body to make this concept more than just an interesting idea. Just a few months ago, in May, it ruled that search engine companies such as Google much remove links to posts about citizens of the European Union who request it if they are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant.” This applies to all postings even the ones that are lawful and true. Failure to comply with the court’s ruling could result in fines.

Needless to say, tens of thousands of requests were almost immediately made. In fact, the middle of this month has seen more than 70,000 removal requests which cover about 250,000 Web pages. This is just with what Google was hit with. In the EU, Googling for most names will now display the results with a notice stating “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe.”

This seems straightforward enough, right? So then why is Google being dragged in front of European data protection regulators today to explain its handling of the “right to be forgotten” ruling by the European Court of Justice? Could it be because Google has decided to make its own interpretation of this ruling? It appears that Google's interpretation has been a high publicity approach, encouraging a wide debate about the complexity of the ruling and introducing a removal request form to its website.

Today, in Brussels, along with Microsoft and Yahoo, Google will discuss the fallout from the ruling and the actions taken to respond to the ruling. According to a report in the Guardian, Google has already privately spoken to regulators, as well as having public discussions to state its discontent over Google’s handling of the situation.

As a response, in May, Eric Schmidt, who is the former chief executive, made a public statement when he said that “Google believes, having looked at the decision which is binding, that the balance that was struck was wrong.” This was followed by current Google chief executive, Larry Page, who expressed concern that the ruling will be “used by other governments that aren’t as forward and progressive as Europe to do bad things."

This situation does raise some interesting questions as to who should be able to make such a request. We know that in the U.S. a pedophile has to register with the police and the neighborhood needs to be made aware of their presence. It seems that a pedophile was among the first to request that information was removed. The same is true for politicians and doctors being among the first people to make the request.

As you can see, there are times when you want this information to be made available. Google’s legal officer said "The issues at stake here are important and difficult, but we're committed to complying with the court's decision. Indeed, it's hard not to empathize with some of the requests that we've seen – from the man who asked that we do not show a news article saying that he had been questioned in connection with a crime (he's able to demonstrate that he was never charged) to the mother who requested that we remove news articles for her daughter's name as she had been the victim of abuse."

For now, Google’s link removals only affect website domains in Europe. The information can still be viewed on links outside of the European Union. This is not an easy question to answer. Obviously a link to someone who was raped, suffered abuse, or anything of that nature should not exist. These people should be left in peace.

On the other hand, if a doctor lost his license or was accused of bad medical practice, I would like to know about that. The above effects people who had something happen to them, this effects people that someone did something to, so that makes it something that would affect me. 




Edited by Maurice Nagle

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