Europe has often had a love-hate relationship when it comes to the work of American tech giants. In the 90s, they went after Microsoft for their “evil” practice of including useful software in their Windows operating system. More recently, tech companies have come under fire in Europe for their complicity with the NSA. In a landmark decision on Tuesday, the European Union ruled that Google and other search providers had to remove information from search results at the request of citizens.
To explain briefly, a man from Spain brought a complaint against Google because search results for his name linked to an auction notice for his repossessed home that was published in the local newspaper. The man argued that by linking to the information, Google had violated his privacy. The European Court of Justice in Luxemburg ruled that search providers are required to take down information if requested by citizens.
The ruling is staggering because it means people can have information redacted from search results for pretty much any reason. The man is Spain was not arguing that information was false, nor that the newspaper had done anything wrong by reporting the information or publishing it online. However, Google was wrong to link to it. The implications may be widespread.
Obviously, Google is disappointed by the system because it creates additional barriers to operating in Europe. The ruling can’t be appealed and the company has been predictably terse in its response.
“This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general,” the search-engine giant said in a statement. “We now need to take time to analyze the implications.”
Now the decision has been made, the bigger challenge will come in the form of implementation. There are no guidelines for what constitutes this “right to be forgotten”. The main questions will be: When does information cease to be relevant? Is there a time frame setup by statute? Who determines what is relevant?
Just like in America, people in Europe like to take on big foreign businesses. Attacking Google may have a populist appeal across the Atlantic, but it does very little to address the core issue. As Google noted in their defense, they aren’t the ones producing the information. The only thing Google’s algorithm does is search through publicly available data to produce search results. Making one search engine remove the listing from their search results doesn’t prevent the information from being searched through some other web service. Nor does it remove the offending information from website that the Google search results linked to.
“Some will see this as corrupting,” said Jonathan Zittrain, a law and computer science professor at Harvard, in statement to the New York Times. “Others will see it as purifying. I think it’s a bad solution to a very real problem, which is that everything is now on our permanent records.”
There’s a similar situation that shows the problem with the “if it’s not on Google, then it doesn’t exist” logic the European Union is using. Right now, copyright holders can make Google remove listings that illegal showcase copyrighted materials. Removing the search listing does nothing to stop people from going directly to the site. The only reason that copyright holders resort to this tactic is that in many cases, copyright violators host their operations in places where it’s harder to force the violator to remove the information.
Ironically, by forcing Google to delist information, the European Commission has made the issue worse. The power of Google’s search engine makes it possible for people to find out what publicly available information about them is out there without paying for it, which makes it easier to have the offending information removed at its source. There are plenty of services that do the same thing as Google for a fee. If the only way to have personal information removed from the web is to ask each search engine and web service to remove it, people would end up paying to see listings just to find out if they want that information removed from that particular service.
Despite the legal victory in Europe, there is little reason to think that similar reforms are coming to the US. There are different consumer attitudes and different legal precedents at play in America. The European Union’s ruling would most likely be unconstitutional in America because it would violate Google’s freedom of speech. And in the test case of the man in Spain, the idea of censoring public records goes against open government laws.
The overall implications of the European Union ruling have yet to be seen, though it will likely reverberate across tech firms operating in Europe. The ruling has the effect of saying that even if tech firms don’t physically operate in a country, they are still subject to the laws of that country involving citizen privacy.