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Google and the right to be forgotten

In 1998, Mario Costeja González had property that was due to be auctioned off to settle a welfare debt. This fact was published in a Spanish newspaper (La Vanguardia Ediciones SL) back then (court appearances are a matter of public record in the United States also); the newspaper digitized its past issues. Costeja González resolved the debt years ago, but a search since then showed the old debt as if it were still current. He petitioned the Spanish Data Protection Agency (Agencia Española de Proteccíon de Datos) to have the references to the debt removed. The agency agreed, but Google refused to remove references to the old debt, so the matter was taken to the Spanish National Court (Audiencia Nacional), who then took it to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). Siding with Mr. Costeja González and the Spanish authorities, the CJEU stated in part: “Thus, if, following a search made on the basis of a person’s name, the list of results displays a link to a web page which contains information on the person in question, that data subject may approach the operator directly and, where the operator does not grant his request, bring the matter before the competent authorities in order to obtain, under certain conditions, the removal of that link from the list of results.”

Google was disappointed by the ruling; Yahoo is “carefully reviewing” the decision, and Microsoft is mum, according to a reported by Alexei Oreskovic edited Richard Chang in Reuters.

Some commentators call this “the right to be forgotten,” or the right to have derogatory items in someone’s past to be expunged, or removed from public search. The right to be forgotten had already existed in the paper world; the CJEU extended that right to the European digital realm as well. Now, at least in Europe, certain information about individuals can be removed. Google and others maintain that applying this ruling will infringe on free speech.

But what about the free flow of information? James Waterworth, as reported in Deutsch Welle says that, “We are really concerned that today's judgment opens the door to censorship, a new form of censorship over the internet, potentially to the whitewashing of history where people who have a grudge against something that is being said online in a link can simply write to the Internet company and have that information taken down. We think this is a dangerous precedent.” He is Vice-President, Europe for the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA). The CCIA “promotes open markets, open systems, open networks, and full, fair, and open competition” according to their website.

Google is the most popular search engine world-wide. But what is a search engine? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a search engine as “computer software used to search data (as text or a database) for specified information; also a site on the World Wide Web that uses such software to locate key words in other sites.” The most popular search engines are Google, Bing, Yahoo! Search, AOL Search, Wow, and Web Crawler. Though only Google was mentioned in Mr. Costeja González’s complaint, any of these operating in Europe will now have to develop the means to remove the undesirable links. But the CJEU says their ruling applies to “An internet search engine operator is responsible for the processing that it carries out of personal data which appear on web pages published by third parties.” Under this definition, Facebook, Twitter, Google +, MySpace, Instagram, and other popular websites on which less than flattering references such as embarrassing pictures and regrettable postings are subject to having to satisfy Europeans’ applications for those links to be removed as well. The CJEU ruling only applies in Europe, not the United States. The United States Constitution says “Congress shall make no law …abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; …. –(1st Amendment).

No one knows how much obeying this ruling will affect the flow of internet information about people. “What does the Internet say about you?” You might be surprised if you type in your full name on Google, Bing, or Yahoo.

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