A politician and a paedophile are among those who have asked Google to erase their online history after the European court ruled that an individual has a “right to be forgotten.” Another takedown request has come in from a doctor who wishes to see negative reviews from his patients removed. Those who feared the impact this ruling would have on freedom of information are seeing their worst fears begin to be realised.
Google had made no further comment since Tuesday of this week, when the European Court of Justice passed the ruling, except to describe it as “disappointing.” The case was brought by a Spaniard, Mario Costeja Gonzalez, who wished details of his house repossession to be removed from search results on his name. However, Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, has now come out to say that he believes that, in the collision between the right to know and the right to be forgotten, the court have the balance wrong.
Commissioner for the European Union, Viviane Reding, celebrated Gonzalez’s success as a “victory” for the “protection of personal data” but others were incredulous. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, was a vocal opponent to the “astonishing” ruling. He was joined by many advocates in defence of free speech, including those from the Index on Censorship, who feared that “an individual’s desires” could “outweigh society’s interest in the facts.”
The first new cases brought to light appear to corroborate these misgivings. The politician who has put in a takedown request is seeking re-election and does not wish details of his conduct in office to remain on the public record. The convicted child abuser, a man who was in possession of child pornography images, has asked for links to his conviction to be eradicated. These do not seem to be prime examples of “irrelevant and outdated” search results, as the court had allowed to be wiped.
How big is the wave of requests for redactions since Tuesday is a detail Google are not telling, but potentially, they could be swamped. One company insider has confessed to Reuters that they had no idea how they were going to deal with the complaints, which were expected to “flood” in.
Taking effect in all 28 countries of the European Union, some predict it will require an “army of removal experts.” It is not known how they are supposed to decide what is “irrelevant.” Google is by far and away the most dominant search engine in Europe and is used by 86 percent of all internet searchers, said to number at least 500 million, compared to 67 percent of the U.S. market.
The removal of objectionable, embarrassing, or unflattering personal materials from the internet was long thought to be an impossibility as the digital footprints could never be unprinted. In effect, this is still true. It just might take a bit more digging.
Files can be removed from search engines like Google, but they are not deleted. They still exist on the host server. Even if a Web Master agreed to remove the original, it would still be cached. It could still be downloaded and shared and, if it had any “virality,” it would be impossible to track down everyone who accessed it. Peer to peer networks that don’t go through separate servers would disseminate that file, make it public again, and its life is practically limitless.
The “right to be forgotten” might be a good intention, but it is unrealistic and, in the short-term, it is already being used to redeem and rewrite unappealing personal histories or, in other words, to force search engines into lying by omission. In the long-run, it might even upset Google’s basic business model.
By Kate Henderson