Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The "right to be forgotten" is a worrying development

The Guardian reports:
The top European court has backed the "right to be forgotten" and said Google must delete "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant" data from its results when a member of the public requests it.
Is this workable? Will judges' idea of what is relevant be the same as that of the wider public? And, most importantly, will it be members of the public who make most use of this power?

The press release from the Court of Justice of the European Union that accompanies the judgment does allow for the idea that those in power should find it harder to use this new right:
However, inasmuch as the removal of links from the list of results could, depending on the information at issue, have effects upon the legitimate interest of internet users potentially interested in having access to that information, the Court holds that a fair balance should be sought in particular between that interest and the data subject’s fundamental rights, in particular the right to privacy and the right to protection of personal data. 
The Court observes in this regard that, whilst it is true that the data subject’s rights also override, as a general rule, that interest of internet users, this balance may however depend, in specific cases, on the nature of the information in question and its sensitivity for the data subject’s private life and on the interest of the public in having that information, an interest which may vary, in particular, according to the role played by the data subject in public life.
Nevertheless, it is public figures who have the money to employ the sort of lawyers Google will take notice of. So it is public figures who are most likely to benefit from the "right to be forgotten".

Indeed, public figures already have some power to censor Google searches. Type in the name of a Labour peer who has been in the news recently and on page two of the results you will see this...

I suppose I should declare an interest here. My Comment is Free piece a couple of days ago relied heavily on my memories of half-forgotten scandals and Google. Laughing at the sins and follies of the wealthy is one of the things the internet was made for, as well as being one of the traditional consolations of the poor.

Do we really want to see an end to that? Must we now respect public figures no matter how badly they behave?

I was alarmed to see Sarah Ludford welcoming the court's decision in the Guardian. But, as is entirely appropriate, when you look at the report now her name as entirely disappeared.

We had better get used to it.


Anonymous said...

'Nevertheless, it is public figures who have the money to employ the sort of lawyers Google will take notice of. So it is public figures who are most likely to benefit from the "right to be forgotten"'

The way I understood it from a discussion on BBC yesterday decisions will be taken by information commissioners and the public interest would have to be taken into account.

It seems to me reasonable to require organisations such as google to remove stuff which is clearly obsolete (as in the debt case taken to the European court by a Spaniard where the debt had been cleared long ago), incorrect and where there is no public interest in keeping the stuff online.

Frank Little said...

We already have a law in this country expunging aged criminal records. ISTM that Google should seek a compromise by offering to delete links beyond a certain age. (In practice, the search engine already does this: I cannot find a reference to the Labour MP's Private Members Bill which changed the law in this area, because it was introduced in the last century.)

In any case, the EU court's ruling does not mean that the substantive record is removed from Internet access, just the links to it. It is like keeping the book, but tearing the index out.