Google had its day in a European court today and, at the end of the day, the company found itself losing the right to remember you. More specifically, the company has been told to learn how to forget everything it “knows” about people on the basis of their Internet search results. The ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union – the European Equivalent of the Supreme Court of the United States – could be a serious blow to the Mountain View, California media conglomerate’s core product, the placement of Internet advertising based upon user interests. In effect, the ruling instructs Google – whose stock in trade is to remember everything about everyone – to discard old, outdated, and irrelevant information attached to a given consumer’s name or email address.
The target of the court’s ruling is Google’s practice of making private information public by providing links to a given consumer’s profile based on preferences indicated by their online search patterns. In this case, the EU Court has ruled that the American company has a positive duty to remove personal information about European consumers provided by third parties whose information has been collected and presented by the Google Search Engine upon their request. The complainant in the EU case was a Spanish citizen who discovered that the details about the foreclosure, repossession and eventual sale of a house he once owned infringed upon his right to privacy exposing him to ridicule long after his financial affairs had been set in order again.
The immediate effect of the ruling appears to be that Google must henceforth remove links to a consumer’s personal information on other websites upon the consumer’s request, necessitating the development of a “do not search” list of consumers who have asked that their personal information be removed. This, in term, requires the creation of the one thing that programmers hate most, which is the imposition of a list of exceptions to a search algorithm. In effect, this could slow down searches by as much as 50 percent since each search item collected would have to be “scrubbed” against the exception list.
The EU decision follows other recent European cases in which fines were levied against the world’s most popular web browser (with a 37 percent global market share) for privacy violations in Spain and Italy. One Italian court assessed Google $1.3 billion when its Street View program took snapshots of people on the streets of an Italian city. (Curiously, no such law protecting the privacy of people in public places exists in the United States. There is a convention to that effect, but news photographers, for example, are specifically exempt from either convention or law in the United States with respect to taking photographs of private persons in public places while covering a legitimate news story.)
Google has long held the opinion that it is not responsible for the information it curates as part of the operation of its search engine, arguing that it is only collecting information that is already freely available on the Internet. The government of the United States agrees with Google. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 specifically exempts Internet service providers and search engine operators from any liability arising from the content that passes through their servers, including everything from embarrassing emails to one’s lovers to terrorist chitchat. In fact, U.S privacy laws supposedly prohibit search engine operators from reviewing the content they carry, which makes it impossible for the to censor objectionable items. It is also technologically unfeasible to launch such protections since each case would require a human operator to make a decision about acceptability of questionable data.
Today’s ruling by the European Union court – which cannot be appealed any more than a decision by the United States Supreme Court can be – calls Google’s entire business model into question, at least insofar as residents of the European Union are concerned, but the ruling raises other questions about the enforceability of a ruling by an European Union court on an American company. The EU court’s decision has no effect on American consumers, unless consumers are living in or visiting an EU country. It also raises questions about the rights of an EU citizen visiting the United States.
In recent months, the internet powerhouse has come under attack for its practice of mining personal email accounts for market research purposes, resulting in the company’s recently announced decision to stop collecting data from the email correspondence of 30 million teachers and students who use the company’s Education platform to communicate with each other about school assignments and activities. That announcement was paired with a companion press release indicating that they would no longer collect marketing information from the email accounts of the Business users unit. These decisions followed a 2011 agreement between Google and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in which the company admitted it violated consumer privacy when they launched their social media site and agreed to submit to biennial privacy audits by an independent third-party for the next 20 years.
If, one the one hand, they are barred from collecting marketing data from internet searches and, on the other hand, they can no longer mine email correspondence for marketing targets, then that part of Google’s business model might very well fall apart, threatening the company’s position as the global leader among search engines. At a time when Internet Explorer has fallen into disrepute due to previously ignored security holes, and Fox has been suffering usability issues following its most recent update, there may suddenly be no clear “best choice” when it comes to web browsers and the search engines they give you access to.
The Mountain View wizards have the EU court decision under study, no doubt trying to figure out how to comply with the EU ruling without letting the air out of its balloons. In the meantime, one thing that Google will not be forgetting anytime soon will be the order to start learning how to forget what the company is in business to remember.