This week, an EU court ruled against Google and made a judgement that it and other search engine providers must accept requests by a person to remove links, specifically if that link is to data that “becomes outdated or inaccurate, even if that information was accurate when it was first published”.
Obviously, some are calling this a huge victory for individual rights, whilst others are saying it amounts to censorship akin to Chinese filtered search results. And, both are right.
Let’s deal with the individual rights here – it means that if someone published information on you, say, being involved in a company that becomes unpopular due to a big legal case, and you subsequently leave the company, you can ask for the information about you to be removed as it is no longer accurate; you don’t work there any more. This can prevent a now inaccurate piece of information being used against you, say, in future job applications. The larger question is not in the accuracy test of the information, but in the ‘outdated’ bit. When does information become outdated? Isn’t history timeless in itself?
Privacy advocates insist this stops organisations and companies abusing customer data, and hands back power to the individual. But on the censorship angle, Google and co. have a point – do we get to have information removed from listings just because we don’t like what it says about us?
There are lots of angles here – some say that if you commit a crime and that is public record, you shouldn’t be able to have this information removed from listings in results for your name. Equally though, part of our justice system is that you serve your time and your conviction is spent, it should no longer count against you. Some say that this argument isn’t even relevant as the law doesn’t apply to these circumstances. It’s an interesting one particularly because I don’t think society has quite cracked the ‘forgiveness’ side of crime yet.
I think part of the problem is, no-one really understands what data this DOES apply to. The right of citizens to control their own data seems relevant to me only when it is data they have personally created. You should not, for example, be able to request removal of an article that embarrasses you, simply because it uses your name. This would be a massive censorship problem – for obvious reasons. But, if it’s data you personally created, shouldn’t you be in control of it already, such that removing it from listings isn’t required?
This uncertainty is all because it isn’t being made apparent who owns what data. Do you ‘own’ a tweet once you send it? Does Twitter? Who ‘owns’ a Facebook status update? If you ‘own’ them, then delete them, and issue takedown orders on those reproducing your work without permission. If you don’t own them, citizens should be made aware that when they submit these statuses, they surrender all ownership of them.
And that’s the crux of it for me – it’s about making sure that the customer data is safe at the end point, not the search engine. Compel the Facebooks and Zyngas and forums and YouTubes to stop selling data so freely, and stop caching old customer data after it has been deleted by the user. Force Google to remove only ‘cached snapshot’ pages on request, and tell citizens their issue is otherwise with the endpoint, which must ensure it’s information is up to date (otherwise libel?). Stop the sites that chronicle tweets from disrespecting tweet deletions, for example. A whole raft of proper measures can be taken to allow citizens the power to control their own ‘right to be forgotten’, because data they actually created is theirs. That, ultimately, makes much more sense that simply hiding results from listings, whilst not removing the data from the Internet.
TL:DR – you don’t have a right to remove pages just because they mention your name, or because you did or said something stupid, regardless of how outdated it is. You do have a right that data you created can be destroyed by you (you own it), and those not disrespecting that deletion should be compelled to do so (copyright?).
I don’t think the judgement will stand too long in its current form.
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