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routes or demolished visitor attractions, so a responsible search engine should prune its records to remove links to outdated information.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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Is Microsoft Voluntarily Censoring The Internet?

There was once a debate about whether large Western multinational corporations – particularly the newly rising high tech companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook – should do business in countries such as China, where governments are openly hostile to the concept of free speech, a free media and unregulated access to information for their citizens.

That debate was settled some time ago, the winners being those who advocated expanding into China and then perhaps doing a little bit of agitating or talking up the virtues of freedom when time and decorum allowed. And though there has been precious little lobbying of the government in favour of free speech by those multinationals, the investment in China has, by and large, been a good thing.

Having long ago lost the argument that it is not their place to participate in Chinese government efforts to filter and censor the web when operating in China itself, everyone was bobbing along quite merrily in a morally dubious equilibrium, where the big tech companies would parade their wholesome, consumer-oriented credentials around in front of anyone who would listen or take down quotes, while also co-operating with Chinese censorship requirements and allowing the NSA ready back-door access to personal information held on their servers.

Enter Microsoft.

It is now believed that in addition to complying with the Chinese government’s demands that search engine query results originating from mainland China are filtered and censored, Microsoft’s also-ran search engine, Bing, has been applying those same censorship algorithms to searches in the Chinese language originating from anywhere on the planet. In other words, Microsoft, either in their zealousness to please the Chinese regime or out of sheer laziness and unwillingness to maintain two separate protocols, has apparently been applying Chinese-style censorship to internet searches not just where the Chinese government has geographical jurisdiction but anywhere in the world, whenever the user happens to be searching in Chinese.

chinese-authorities-force-businesses-to-help-censor-the-web-pg

The Telegraph reports:

According to research by Greatfire.org, an anti-censorship campaign blog, Microsoft’s Bing search engine filters Chinese-language results around the world, in the same way as it does in mainland China

Searches for potentially controversial terms such as “Dalai Lama” produce very different results when they are carried out in Chinese than they do in English, even if both searches are carried out on US soil, Greatfire said.

Its claims are likely to raise questions about whether Beijing is trying to extend its censorship regime to the Chinese populations of other countries, and whether Microsoft is making inappropriate concessions.

This is inappropriate to say the very least. The Chinese government’s policy of filtering the internet for its citizens so as to effectively pretend that certain viewpoints, ideologies or historical events are not real is bad enough, as is the fact that Western technology companies have complied with it in order to gain access to Chinese markets while demanding and extracting no concessions or easing of restrictions in exchange. But this allegation, if correct, suggests that corporate malfeasance has been taken to a much more worrying level.

One of the great advantages of globalisation and the free movement of people is that people from different countries can be exposed to different ideas, practices and ways of working. Even though the internet is restricted in mainland China, Chinese citizens could access the full, uncensored internet when traveling abroad, just as they could read the free press. In turn, exposure of Chinese citizens to new and contradictory ideas from outside could ultimately increase pressure on the government to relax their draconian policies.

Basing internet censorship on language rather than geography, as Microsoft appears to be doing, completely destroys this premise and removes the potential for this to happen. As the Telegraph rightly indicates, it would appear that Microsoft is aiding and abetting efforts by the Chinese government to extend their control over expatriate Chinese populations in other countries. In countries such as Britain this may merely be an odious and shameful act, but in other countries such as America, where the right to freedom of expression is constitutionally enshrined, a plausible legal argument could potentially be made that Microsoft is committing a First Amendment violation and breaking the law.

This revelation also contrasts Microsoft very negatively with Google, whose own search engine results for sensitive topics prime for Chinese censorship remain similar whether the search is conducted in English or Chinese, when outside of the Chinese mainland:

Users searching for “Dalai Lama” in Chinese were offered a link to information about a documentary produced by CCTV, the Chinese state-owned broadcaster, before any other search results of results linked to two entries on Baidu Baike, a heavily-censored online encyclopedia. Yahoo, whose search engine is powered by Bing, produced the same results.

By contrast, Google produces broadly similar results for web searches conducted in the US, regardless of whether the terms are searched for in Chinese or English.

But it is Greatfire, the online transparency and pressure group, who pose the ultimate question to Microsoft:

But whose law is dictating the manipulation of search results for Americans who are using Bing in the United States? Or French who are using Bing in France?

It is one thing to prostrate oneself to the laws and whims of a foreign government when negotiating terms to do business in that country. But if incompetence or monetary greed has led Microsoft to start applying Chinese censorship laws to citizens of other countries, then they have a big case to answer.

Where else are Chinese web censorship algorithms lurking?
Where else are Chinese web censorship algorithms lurking?

Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s new CEO, may only be one week into his tenure in the top job, but this is a potential crisis of image and trust that needs to  be nipped in the bud and resolved – yesterday.

Microsoft has gone silent in response to the allegations from Greatfire so far. When the firm eventually comes up with an official story and breaks the silence, it will be very interesting indeed to hear their excuses.

We’ve Come A Long Way, Ctd. 2

Looking back at the Atari ST, a popular computing choice for creative people working with music or graphics back in the day.

 

Also featuring towards the end of the episode an excited announcement about an upcoming MacWorld Exposition in Boston, at which the first Apple laptop was to be launched.

We’ve Come A Long Way, Ctd.

Fast-forwarding to 1995, it no longer takes two hours to download an electronic copy of your favourite newspaper, and there are a few more things to do on the internet once you are dialed up.

 

Some fascinating reminders of how things used to be, including the world’s first band to livestream (with poor audio and a very low frame rate) a performance on the web. And a sweetly over-optimistic prediction that internet cafes would become fun, social places hang out.

Plus USENET Newsgroups, CompuServe, FTP and more…

Good luck trying to place your online order on this version of the site
Good luck trying to place your online order on this version of the site