In an unprecedented ruling, the EU high court ruled yesterday that Google must remove search results about a person that are "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant" if asked by that person. The ruling came about because a Spanish man complained that information about an obsolete and resolved court case was still appearing when he Googled his own name. The court ruled essentially that a person has the right to be "forgotten" on the Internet if he so chooses.
This decision is rather complicated but apparently it cannot be appealed. However, its implementation will not be straightforward. Some free speech advocates said that this ruling will lead to dangerous Internet censorship. But, privacy rights advocates have generally praised the decision.
There is a more fundamental problem with Google search results. In general, Google advises users to contact the Webmaster where data is maintained to remove information that they find objectionable. The problem is that often the Webmaster does not have the authority to remove such information. For example, a blogger who uses a blogging framework generally controls the contents of his blogs. The Webmaster has no authority to remove anything. Thus, if someone puts nasty information about you on the net, it is difficult to have it removed.
Even more difficult is the case where the original information has already been removed, but since Google caches search results, undesirable search results can continue to appear for months or even years. The key issue here is that when you click on the link maybe the Web site cannot be found. But, the summary in the Google search may still show the undesirable information. To repeat, the original material may not exist but Google search results could still show the undesirable information.
The potential pernicious impact of Google search results are highlighted by the fact that apparently an arrest record is one of the top Google results even though the person may have been found to be innocent. Thus, "online, you are guilty even after being proven innocent." and "the free speech rights of publishers trump those of individuals."
An even more extreme case arose when someone was trying to build a radio-controlled airplane for his son. So, he was trying to type, "How do I build a radio controlled airplane?" in his Google search box. However, in a $50M lawsuit that he filed against Google and several individuals and organizations in the Federal Government, he claims that Google auto-completed his search phrase by replacing the word "airplane" with the word "bomb." He inadvertently pressed the enter button and subsequently his life was ruined.
The man claims that subsequent to this single erroneous search, government investigators visited him and his workplace several time and he eventually ended up losing his job. He claims that the government even attached a GPS antenna to his car.
While the EU court ruling arose out a suit against Google, it applies to Bing, Yahoo and all other search engines. However, U.S. laws and court systems are far behind the EU in protecting individual privacy rights. With the NSA surveillance still going on unabated, perhaps you shouldn't even be reading this article!