The EU, Google and People’s Right to Suppress Digital History

 

The EU’s ruling that individuals should have the right to remove certain information about themselves from Google is a complex one. Whilst all would agree that people should have the freedom to start afresh and move on from what’s past, there’s far more to changing your history than simply deleting references to it from immediate digital memory. And with the ever-growing reliance on social media, the ruling may not have any positive impact at all, despite the many complications it’ll cause for data collation and processing.

For those unfamiliar with the case, a Spanish man found himself in financial difficulty in the late 90’s and was forced to sell his assets in order to pay back debts owed to the state. Now some 16 years later, the details of his case still show up in Google when people search for his name, hurting his professional standing. The man appealed to a Spanish court to have these results removed, which the court rejected. He then took his case to the EU Court of Justice, who have now ruled in his favour and called on Google to help facilitate such suppression requests in certain circumstances. The exact detail of how this’ll work, and what Google’s responsibility will be in such cases, is yet to be determined, but the potential breadth of such restrictions and flow-on impacts of historical censorship will cause years of legal headaches and moral questions over the public’s right to know versus the individual’s right to privacy.

As an example of this, some of the people who’ve sought to remove unfavourable results from Google so far have been:

  • A doctor who wants poor reviews removed
  • A convicted pedophile who wants mentions of his conviction erased
  • An actor who wants reports of an affair with a teenager removed

While there are no doubt some cases where removal of such results is warranted, most of the requests that have been made public so far seem to also have a very strong case for inclusion in the public interest, even if it would restrict that person’s future opportunities. But there are also further complications to the process that make it potentially irrelevant, or at least, increasingly less relevant in a more connected world:

  • If a result is removed from Google, Google may put in a note saying that results have been removed due to legal action – this would red flag any of these cases if someone went searching for info on a person
  • If there was a red flag, the searcher would still most likely to be able to find relevant info – the EU decision would relate to specific searches of that person’s name, but the actual data would remain, it would just be harder to locate
  • A rising number of people are using social media for search (particularly when looking up data on specific people), a capability that’s only going to increase as we become more socially connected – that being the case, you’d still be able to find any social media matches for the person’s name and any links to previous content via social searches outside Google – if someone discussed the case on Twitter, for example, you’d still be able to find that via Twitter search, even if the match was removed from Google
  • As with the case at the centre of this claim, each request may potentially end up getting significantly more coverage because of the removal action itself. The Spanish man seeking to have his info suppressed has, ironically, had it highlighted more than it ever would’ve been, despite the eventual finding in his favour. Cases that are not upheld, in particular, could end up getting a lot of coverage, unintentionally highlighting the very issue they were trying to silence. This may lead to fewer people taking up the option to mitigate that risk

While EU ruling will create a raft of complications for Google (and privacy agencies also), the ruling is not likely to have significant impacts on users’ ability to search for relevant info. If there is an increase in approved takedown requests, more refined social search options will rise to increase search capacity across all platforms, better enabling users to find data which might be hidden. Whilst we’d all like to give people another chance, the reality is that hiding past issues is always going to be difficult in the connected age. Removing results from Google is one thing – erasing your digital footprint in it’s entirety is much more complex, and becoming moreso as an increasing amount of our interactions are conducted online.

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