In Dave Eggers' novel The Circle, there is a fictional Google-like entity, bearing the same name as the novel, whose ultimate goal is that everyone should know everything, whether it contains personal data or not. To them, "Privacy Is Theft."
For better or worse, depending on your stance on privacy, it seems the world depicted in Eggers' novel will remain pure fiction. Last week, the European Court of Justice upheld the complaint of Mario Costeja Gonzalez, a Spanish man who objected to the fact that Google search results of his name revealed a link to a 1998 newspaper story on the repossession of his home. As this past incident had already been resolved, Mario felt that a search of his name should no longer recover this information.
With an individual's "right to be forgotten" now backed by the EU court, Google is obliged to remove data from its search engines. Although this could potentially lead to a profusion of data removal requests, the right is not an absolute one. An individual can request the deletion of material should it be deemed excessive, inadequate or no longer relevant. However, should an individual be prolific in public life, then that person's right may be disregarded in favour of the public interest.
In the wake of the EU Court's decision, Google is now faced with a few problems that not only call into question the principles behind the right to be forgotten but could also have possible damaging effects on its functionality as a search engine tool.
For one thing, it is likely that Google will have to contend with a barrage of data removal requests. It is unlikely that Google will simply comply with all appeals, so the search engine giant will presumably need to devise a whole new notice and takedown procedure. This will need to take into account all the variables identified by the Court of Justice in order to arrive at a defensible decision - an unenviable task indeed.
Another consequence of this ruling is that it holds Google liable as an intermediary for indexing information, which is published on third party websites, seemingly as matter of expediency rather than justice. It seems that Google is considered a fair target because it is in the EU jurisdiction, while the third party websites that it indexes might not be.
Finally, the ruling does nothing to address the underlying problem of out-of-date information remaining on those third party websites. To all intents and purposes the information on the internet is like an online encyclopaedia for which Google provides the index. But if you remove the index from an encyclopaedia, it doesn't mean the information to which it refers is no longer there. It simply means that the encyclopaedia is no longer practically usable to a majority of readers.
Removing Google's indexed content risks damaging the functionality of a tool that many web users rely on when surfing the web. So we have to ask ourselves: is that actually in the public interest?
Andrew Tibber is a partner at Tech City law firm Temple Bright. He specialises in IP & Technology and has particular expertise in the legal aspects of digital business, social media, reputation management and press complaints. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about Temple Bright can be found at the firm's website, www.templebright.com.