On May 13, the European Union Court of Justice (ECJ) rained on Google's anti-privacy parade by ruling that people (in Europe only) can ask the search engine company to delete sensitive information from its Internet search results. On the surface, you would think that online privacy advocates would refer to this court decision as the shot heard round the world -- only it's not and here's why.
The issue at hand in the ruling goes to the core services that a search engine provides. By definition, search engines are supposed to compile an unbiased list of resources about a topic for the person requesting it. Granted, we know that Google and other search engines exceed these powers by skewing search results based on advertising revenue and much worse, building a profile of people based on the language they use, the searches they make, and the interactions they have online. That is clearly wrong.
But the ramifications of the European Court's ruling are different and dangerous. Mainly, it states that individuals can request search engines to remove links to articles or websites that contain public information about them they find undesirable. That is not right either.
In the case in question, a Spanish citizen "Googled" himself and discovered a link to a notice published in an old Spanish newspaper about an unpaid welfare debt. The citizen's argument was that the debt had been settled and thusly the reference should have been removed (the notice was discovered by Google when the newspaper digitized its archive). This information was public from the day it was published -- and Google's discovery of and serving of the link during a search is natural and warranted.
American society is built on the foundation of freedom -- of speech, of the press, of thought, and of the individual. The Pandora's Box this ruling opens is a form of censorship that could severely impact our ability to find truth on the Internet. What we would be left with is everyone's version of their own truth, a warped version of the "truthiness" that Stephen Colbert taught us a few years ago.
Say you're an individual with a criminal record. You're a politician with an inappropriate conflict of interest. You're a job seeker with a disqualifying background. Is it your right then to request that any reference to that prior issue be expunged from online archives -- even though the record of what you've done has never been erased in the real world?
So much for research on the Internet. Forget about it. You would be digesting only a skewed serving. It's one thing to post information and then delete it without a footprint. It's another to have truthful and documented information deleted online just because we don't happen to like the truth that it portrays. This raises all kinds of issues, privacy and safety, and is a stark case of reality versus fiction.
We are missing seeing the forest through the trees here. The issue for privacy advocates isn't about censorship or about online searches revealing personally curated distortions. It's about preventing data mining of our information and emails. It's about stopping companies from tracking the searches we make and selling that information to the highest bidder. It's about maintaining our right to privacy in the face of pure greed and an overall lack of morals.
No company or entity should be able to build an online persona about us from the privacy of our actions and searches. Nor should anyone be able to erase legally documented history just because they find certain information unflattering. This is separate from the absolutely needed right to be able to remove my own personal posts or tagged photos of me posted by others.
The bottom line is Europe's right to be forgotten stance is correct in its sentiment but as defined currently by this ruling, flawed in its delivery. Online privacy advocates are not asking that we give people the right to create their own history which would create a world juxtaposed with falsehoods and distrust far greater than exist today. What they are asking for is the right to the privacy of our own thoughts and actions when online.