Are you troubled by nasty comments about you posted on some websites by a crazy someone? Or are you a cook who is having sleepless nights over mean feedbacks (even if they are true 😉 ) in some web forums? Well, guess what, the European Court of justice just heard you. The court recently passed a landmark verdict allowing individuals to have a say in what pops up when you search for them online. According to the verdict, individuals now have the right to ask search engines to remove links to “obsolete”, “irrelevant” items concerning them.
The court’s judgment has brought again to the forefront the “Right to Information” vs “Right to Privacy” debate. Advocates of internet privacy have hailed this verdict as a welcome change which will bring back the attention to the importance of privacy in the internet crazy world. Supporters of internet freedom, on the contrary, have dismissed this as dubious and as something which sets a bad precedent.
One striking aspect of the verdict is its extreme subjectivity. Even though the court ruled that,
whilst it is true that the rights [of the person who wants their search results scrubbed] override, as a general rule, that interest of internet users, this balance may however depend, in specific cases, on the nature of the information in question and its sensitivity for the data subject’s private life and on the interest of the public in having that information, an interest which may vary, in particular, according to the role played by the data subject in public life
it didn’t specify any mechanism which can be used as a reference by search engines to decide if a search result should be visible to the public.
Diving into the technicalities, we uncover even more pressing issues. A very delicate balance needs to be maintained by search engines with regards to sensitive personal as well as cultural issues. The connotations of the verdict will also differ according to the public profile of the individual concerned. Some might argue that everyone has the right to know about every single legal proceeding (no matter how petty it might be) against a political leader but no one would seem to care the same for a common man. The court also left the “how” part of the question entirely to search engines such as Google, Bing et al without providing much guidance. This might lead to heterogeneous solutions further increasing the confusion.
The concomitant logistical challenges are also huge. What the court happily forgot is that at the end of the day a judgment on whether a particular result should show up in the searches has to be taken by a human. There’s also the problem of the number of languages involved. The Court’s ruling is only applicable to the European Union and thus creates significant non-uniformities in the way the internet functions in a particular continent. The internet was meant to globalize and not create silos in the way it functions.
In my opinion, even though the verdict seems to pacify the privacy concerns, there are a staggering number of associated issues which need to be debated and worked upon.