Google may be forced to be more forthcoming when asked to remove information about individuals from its search results. This follows Google’s loss in a landmark court case which questioned the amount of control they were administering over data privacy in Europe.
The case stemmed from a complaint made by a Spanish national, Mario Costeja, who requested that Google withdrew an auction notice of his repossessed house that was still appearing in its search results long after the issue was resolved, which he claimed was infringing on his privacy. Understandably he did not want his personal business being publicised for everyone to see. But Google refused to remove the content stating that it was not responsible for deleting individual content that is published legally elsewhere. Spain’s top court backed the complainant and the case was referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ)
The ECJ raised the question as to whether search engines such as Google, are simply just “hosting” web content or whether they are actually “controllers” of personal data. Are they merely a device, offering a service and their responsibilities end there or do they hold a lot more power than that, should they be accountable for the information that appears in their search engine results and be obliged to remove personal information as and when requested?
The judges ruled that Google, and other search engine providers, are in fact “controllers” who are processing personal data on the site. The “activity of a search engine is additional to that of publishers of websites and is liable to affect significantly the fundamental rights to privacy and to the protection of personal data” and that Google is “obliged to remove links to web pages” in certain circumstances.
There are 180 similar cases of people wanting Google or other search engines to remove content from its site in Spain alone. Imagine how many requests for removal of personal content Google, a worldwide organization, will receive now that the ruling has been passed. What is worrying is that information which could be deemed in the public’s best interest to be published, such as politicians accepting bribes, could now be removed from search engine results as though it had never even happened.
On the flip side it could mean that innocent people that have been accused but cleared of a crime after questioning could have all the negative stories and information published about them erased.
Google said that “This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general. We are very surprised that it differs so dramatically from the advocate-general’s opinion and the warnings and consequences that he spelled out. We now need to take time to analyse the implications.”
Alfredo Bloy-Dawson the head of Vooodoo Internet Marketing, Spain-based company which offers online reputation management services warns people not to get prematurely excited.
“Google always did have the facility to request for items to be removed from its index, it just seemed to make it so difficult to get something removed that it generally seemed pointless even trying.”
“If as a result of this ruling it makes it easier to get libelous content removed then great. I am all for free speech, but the web is still the wild west where you can do what you want almost with impunity, justification or legal recourse,” he said. “It takes two minutes to publish something online about someone else, but it can take years and a tremendous amount of cash to have it removed, and in some cases the attempt to have it removed is futile.”
“The typical conversation we have with clients seeking help on these matters involves an angry ex employee or competitor accusing them of a wide range of crimes from rape to fraud and everything in-between on a freebie blog such as WordPress or Blogspot. When we look to get it removed, Google refers us to the hosting company of the website where the content is published, which invariably is in another continent. The hosting company then refers us to the blogging platform which normally doesn’t want to know anything and refers us to the owner of the blog which is the person who wrote the derogatory content in the first place.
“If you send them a legal letter they just publish your letter, and add more fuel to the fire which then strengthens the position of the negative content in the search engines. Same happens if you add a comment to the blog post, it often just feeds the conversation and making matters worse,. This is the reality.”
“The client then goes to see a lawyer who has to navigate the legislation of several continents (at great expense to the client) and should they be successful in getting Google, hosting company, platform or website owner to remove the content, five minutes later up it pops on another. People just give up. In my view nobody should not be able to ruin a company or an individual’s reputation without being accountable. All they need is a motive, an internet connection and half an hour to kill and that’s that, your reputation is toast,” he said.
But make no mistake, even if Google removes something from its index, it doesn’t mean the content has been removed from the web, it just means people searching on Google won’t see it (and in some cases that country specific version of Google eg Google.co.uk).
So hitting that enter key and publishing something online may no longer mean that it is embedded in the memory of the World Wide Web forever for the whole world to see! Can we really expect to be able to control what is seen on the internet after we have published it? The European Commission thought it was necessary to impose in law that every EU citizen has “the right to be forgotten”. But this leaves the question as to whether this is a right that we, the general public, have come to expect?
Read the European Court of Justice full press release here
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