EU’s Google Ruling Undermines Freedom Of Information

Google ECJ data ruling

The European Court of Justice, in another inspired ruling, has effectively declared that EU citizens have the right to request that Google delete undesirable search results which may portray them in a negative light.

With astonishing disregard for freedom of information and a troglodyte’s grasp of modern technology and its administration, the court held that there are certain circumstances when an individual may petition Google (and presumably other search engines) to delete links to various sites which contain information deemed false, obsolete or irrelevant.

Supporters of this backward and anti-democratic move might argue that Google search results function in a similar way to road signs, and that just as a city has a responsibility to remove road signs that point to closed routes or demolished visitor attractions, so a responsible search engine should prune its records to remove links to outdated information. And this neat analogy almost holds together.

Nearly, but not quite. The difference, of course, is that Google search results point to information on the internet that is still very much in existence and potentially of great importance. Forcing Google to remove search engine results is akin to a city deciding that a prominent building should be removed from local maps because it has fallen into disrepair and become an eyesore. The building remains, and it is in the interests of many people that its whereabouts remain public knowledge, whether or not it causes embarrassment for the city council or town planners.

Already a growing list of people with shady pasts are coming forward with petitions to Google, in the hope of wiping the digital slate clean of their past misdeeds, as the Telegraph reports:

Since it was introduced, more than 1,000 people have asked Google to remove links to unfavourable stories. They include a former MP seeking re-election, a man convicted of possessing child abuse images and 20 convicted criminals.

But more concerning than the granting people the ability to falsely curate the digital history of their lives for potentially nefarious purposes, the court’s decision places a human being at Google – or wherever the decision over which records should be removed is ultimately taken – in the role of moral arbiter of what information is still ‘accurate’ or ‘current’, and what information the public has a right to know. No human being or committee should be vested with such power, least of all one that hears petitions from people or institutions with overriding personal reasons to meddle with the perception of their past.

(Even the publication of false information, after all, becomes a matter of historical fact when it takes place, potentially an important one – such as cases of libel or political misstatement – which should be preserved for easy reference by future scholars, historians or lawyers.)

Furthermore, the court’s ruling shows complete and utter contempt for the ability of human beings to filter good information from bad, and accurate data from the misleading. Even if it were the case that erroneous information about a person’s criminal past or business dealings existed online, people are equipped with the mental faculties to check and verify the information before acting on it. The court’s opinion holds the human capacity to reason in such scant regard that it effectively decides it must be the job of someone – Google, the courts, the Truth Committee, anyone – to filter our reality before we observe it, lest we find ourselves being mislead.

Mark Weinstein forcefully sums up the argument against the ruling in the Huffington Post:

No company or entity should be able to build an online persona about us from the privacy of our actions and searches. Nor should anyone be able to erase legally documented history just because they find certain information unflattering. This is separate from the absolutely needed right to be able to remove my own personal posts or tagged photos of me posted by others.

One might expect that a ruling of this magnitude might prompt a response from the Prime Minister, but as is so often the case with matters of principle, David Cameron disappoints:

Asked by the Telegraph whether the ruling had any implications on freedom of speech, Mr Cameron replied: “I haven’t actually had a lot of time to look at this issue, so maybe I will have to get back to you on that.

“The basic principal that your information belongs to you is a good one, but I haven’t had a careful look at this, so I have to give you a considered answer another time.”

He added: “There you go – a politician who doesn’t know all the answers.”

It should not require many long nights spent poring over philosophical treatises and legal documents in order to form an opinion about the ECJ’s regressive ruling, but at least David Cameron is able to make a joke out of his total lack of conviction. For this blog, by contrast, the matter is quite clear-cut.

Our shared ideal of freedom and democracy requires as its aspiration (albeit never fully realised) the free and unfettered access to information on which to base our opinions and decisions. Establishing a precedent which says we cannot be trusted to distinguish current information from the obsolete, the relevant from the irrelevant, the true from the false, and setting up an intermediary system to do the job for us – which is what the European Court of Justice has so outrageously done – places the ECJ on the same morally repugnant ground as the internet censors of North Korea and the architects of the Great Firewall of China.

The people of Europe do not need the European Court of Justice, Google or anyone else to limit the scope of their information world. The justices wildly overstepped the mark, and should be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

Note: The Guardian has a good explainer on the case which can be read here.

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