Do ordinary citizens have the right to demand that outdated, misleading, or even simply potentially embarrassing information about themselves be removed from Google? Earlier this week, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that they do in a surprise decision. The court’s move has renewed a fiery debate about the balance between personal privacy rights and freedom of expression on the Internet. Should the Internet forget? Not according to Jonathan Zittrain, leading internet scholar, Harvard Law and Computer Science professor, and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
A man named Mario Costeja González objected that a Google search on his name turned up two foreclosure announcements published in a newspaper from 1998 seeking buyers of his property to satisfy unpaid debts — debts that were apparently genuine, but that were old enough that, in his view, they should remain obscure rather than a quick search away.
The court agreed, in a ruling and press release that noted, with his name, the very facts that Mr. González sought to bury.
Zittrain is sympathetic to the problem the court has taken up – but sees that opening the gates to a deluge of removal requests for search engines to weigh using a complicated legal balancing test is asking for trouble. Google could even be caught in the middle as spurious requests are made for removal — what happens for those who discover that the search results that reflect best upon them have been removed at the request of a mischief-making imposter?
Instead, Zittrain proposes that search engine companies get more creative about how searches work. In 2007, Google introduced a feature to its Google News aggregator that allowed people quoted or mentioned in a news article to add a comment next to that article in the search results offering to readers an explanation, an apology, or a reason to discount information. But Google abandoned the feature, and Zittrain says that’s too bad. If search engines allowed for such comments generally, they might be able to give you more influence over the information about you online without giving you the power to censor.
If the likes of Google, Bing and Yahoo! don’t commit considerable resources to mitigating the can of worms the ECJ has opened, they’ll likely find themselves in a cat-and-mouse game of censorship and evasion, Zittrain cautions. And that will only lead to more fragmentation of the web.
No matter the eventual solution, this week’s ruling will escalate the question of whether true but regrettable facts in the public domain are something an individual has the right to control.