The 'Right to be Forgotten' and what it means for our digital future
Unless you've been hiding under a rock since May, you will undoubtedly be aware of the landslide ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union that allows individuals to request the removal of links to inadequate, irrelevant, excessive or outdated data on search engines such as Google in the 'right to be forgotten' movement.
Since the ruling, more than 142,000 removal requests have been made to Google, accounting for more than 490,000 web pages - with more than 18,000 of these requests being made by UK citizens.
Something to hide
On the face of it you might not think that the removal of data is such a big deal … until you remember that tragic blog you wrote on the meaning of life when you were fourteen, or those drunken pictures after your hen or stag do! Suddenly the prospect of preventing future employers judging you on your embarrassing past exploits seems very appealing.
However for some people, it's far more serious - for example the teacher that was wrongly accused of child abuse, the woman that took her rapist to trial, or the person that's had their online identity stolen. You can sympathise with those that are plagued by an online perception over which they have no control, or who are permanently associated with devastating stories of their personal past - especially if these pages are the first thing to show up on their name search.
Many privacy activists also believe that the move offers a welcome relief to vindictive online behaviour and the end to truly freely being able to publish defamatory and inaccurate online content without regulation.
On the flipside, the acceptance of removal of content, such as politicians concealing catastrophic failures, or instances like the BBC Economics Editor Robert Peston having his blog post about former Merrill Lynch boss Stan O'Neal wiped, is not so clean cut. Surely the eradication of such content conflicts public interest? After all, surely we have the right to know all the facts, both good and bad, about politicians and our business leaders, and not have them concealed due to reputational risks for the individuals involved.
We also need to take a closer look at why people are applying for their online data to be removed. Just a month after the ruling, Chief Executive of Google Larry Page shared that 31% of requests in the UK and Ireland came from frauds or scams, 21% from those involved in arrests, convictions, violent and serious crimes, 12% regarding child pornography arrests, 5% from the government and police, and 2% from celebrities - many with questionable motives for wanting their data removed.
The responsibility of privacy
Before the ruling, Google argued that as a search engine, they simply index content that is already freely available on the web, and reiterated that all websites are already obliged to review any deletion requests themselves - it is the author of any material that bears the responsibility for removal requests - not third parties that host the sites or search engines that index it.
In the case that earmarked and was referenced to during the Right to being Forgotten ruling, a Spanish citizen complained that an auction notice of his repossessed home was showing up in Google results and infringing his privacy rights as the proceedings against him were fully resolved. The citizen requested that the reference to his name or the entire page itself to be removed under the basis that they were irrelevant. The case closed with the Spanish court deciding in favour of the Spaniard, citing that the 1995 Data Protection Directive did apply to search engines as they are controllers of personal data - and that they had a responsibility to remove such personal data if requested.
google right to be forgottenIt was also cited that search engines are responsible regardless of whether search engine servers are outside the EU or not - especially since advertising space on such search engines are offered inside the EU. Others have added that the burden of responsibility is not unreasonable, considering the profiteering made from such advertising space sold next to contentious posts and accounts of personal information.
The top domain requests for deletion include data on Facebook, Badoo, YouTube and Google Groups - the latter two already being Google-owned and operated and with their own removal requests facility already in place.
Despite the ruling already being passed, we can't help but wonder if that in certain circumstances, instead of blaming search engines, websites, journalists or even authors of unfavourable content, the real buck of responsibility for our online persona is down to our own actions and behaviours.
Deleted data is still searchable!
Unbeknown to most, removal requests are never truly deleted and are still searchable using google.com/ncr - which is a non-regional version of Google. This is because the ruling only applies to Europe and therefore the content is still available outside the EU. Whilst this seems to make a mockery of the entire ruling, we wonder how long it will be before the same right to be forgotten will be pursued further afield, and whether countries like America will rally around to value privacy more than freedom.
The return of censorship?
Despite the thumbs up from privacy campaigners, not everyone is happy with the right to be forgotten ruling and amongst the loudest protestors are those in the media sector, who claim that the removal of content fundamentally undermines freedom of expression. And while the right to be forgotten is not an absolute guarantee - for example only a third of deletion requests from the UK have been approved, in many cases Google are effectively revising history and albeit not at their liking, supporting censorship.
Although it is clear to see both sides of the censorship V privacy argument, this does send an alarming warning bell with regards to the future of web content - both personal and otherwise, with large questions arising as to how the future of data is controlled - and not by the authors or even the websites, but at the whim of individuals mentioned within the content.
Whilst we have always had censorship in some forms on the web in the form of copyrights, defamation, harassment, and obscene material, the scope of the censorship net has now greatly increased. Some people even fear that this could be the start of a new age - the 'dark web', whereby more and more online information will gradually disappear and be either replaced or omitted entirely. Without proper regulation, which is almost impossible on a ruling that is carried out on a case by case basis, will this be the first of a new wave of censorship rulings?