On Thursday October 23rd the Cambridge Union Society hosted a debate sponsored by Mendeley about the right to be forgotten online, and voted to oppose the motion. Gabriel Hughes, VP of Analytics at Elsevier and a former executive at Google, outlines his own stance in opposition and reflects on the overall debate.
Should we have the right to force search engines to remove links to information which we don't want other people to see? A May 2014 ruling in a case brought against Google gave European citizens this power and sparked a heated worldwide debate.
Althought the 'right to be forgotten' had been first outlined in the EU's 1995 Data Protection Directive, these recent developments showed us what it could mean in practice, and this is what I find myself passionately opposed to.
It is clear that an absolute right to be forgotten, allowing everyone complete control over what information about them should be published online, makes no sense. We need to know about politicians who have fiddled expenses, doctors who have been sued for malpractice, and bankers convicted of fraud. If there is to be a right to be forgotten, then everyone accepts there has to be a balance between the rights of individuals, freedom of speech and the public interest.
What then of the specific 'right to be forgotten' now granted in European law? The ruling which has led to this arose from the case a Spanish businessman, Mario Costeja González, brought against Google. Mr González Googled himself in 2009 and found a link to a public notice about the forced sale of his house 9 years before. Understandably he would prefer to appear to be financially reliable, so he contacted the publisher, a newspaper called La Vanguardia, and asked them to remove the notice. They said they could not, as the notice was made by order of a Spanish court.
Here we get to the heart of the matter. The underlying problem that Mr González had was nothing to do with search engines, and yet it is Google who has been pursued and ruled against in this case.
What is particularly perverse is that while the search engine is obliged to remove links to information, the publisher has no obligation to remove the information itself.
Given the way the Internet works, an approach like this is bound to fail, as it will simply encourage new routes of navigation to publicly available information, bypassing search engines and serving only to undermine the neutrality and integrity that people expect from search.
This is already happening. The Daily Telegraph is now publishing a complete list of all their articles that have been unlinked in search engines. David Jordan, the Director of Editorial Policy at the BBC, declared just last week that the BBC would like to do the same. The Guardian has been considering reposting unlinked stories in a Twitter feed.
(By the way, just in case you find it difficult to trawl through these various repostings you can find all of them helpfully organised for you at hiddenfromgoogle.com - a site which appeared within weeks of the Court's decision...) Thus the new ruling not only fails to provide the intended protection, but can also give people an entirely false sense of security.
Nobody seems to think it is a good idea to force Google into this new Big Brother role where it has to arbitrate what websites can share online. The search engine is getting thousands of requests, which it then individually evaluates, to try and determine if and how to censor its own search index. In other words, this right is turning the neutral and automated role of a search engine on its head.
Furthermore, this ruling affects all search engines, and not all search engines have the resources that Google has at its disposal. No doubt Bing and maybe even Yahoo might be able to match their efforts, but what about Ask.com, or Blekko, or WolframAlpha, or DuckDuckGo, or AOL, or all the sector specific search engines like Monster.com, or Business.com, or Mocavo.com? People who want to be forgotten have A LOT of search engines to go after.
Meanwhile, publishers like the BBC and The Guardian have said they would actually prefer to directly handle requests for changes to public information, as only they know the full story behind each story. Unfortunately, data protection regulations prevent search engines from sharing the details of those requests with the publishers.
The central error I believe the court made was to find that search engines are data controllers of personal data posted on other websites. Indeed the EU's own Advocate General, Niilo Jääskinen advised last year that search engine providers should not be classed as such. Search engines may be devised by people, but the search results themselves are not, they are discovered and organised by computer algorithms, providing a data processing service for publishers and users. What this ruling is effectively saying is that machines should be in charge of controlling the validity and relevance of information. The very fact that Eric Schmidt has said very clearly that every request for removal that Google receives has to be evaluated individually by a person, and that they don't see this process being automated, speaks volumes against this idea. If Google, of all companies, does not think that something can be automated, others should probably take heed.
So went my argument against the 'right to be forgotten' ruling. My team in opposition was led by the MP for Cambridge Julian Huppert, Mariam Cook, CEO of Position Dial, and Alistair McCapra, CEO of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. The proposition side supporting the right to be forgotten was led by David Smith, Deputy Commissioner at the Information Commissioner's Office, and also included Jon Crowcroft, Professor of Communications Systems at Cambridge, Gavin Phillipson, Chair of Law at Durham University and also Emma Carr, Director of Big Brother Watch.
Our opposing team won the debate by 35 per cent 'nays' to 30 per cent 'ayes'. Yet the debate highlighted the complexity of the issue, which was also reflected in the high level of abstentions. Indeed one audience member spoke up in abstention to ask whether the debate was about the principle of the Right To Be Forgotten, or the actual right in law now defined by the Court of Justice of the European Union. This is an important consideration, as the principle may have some virtue even if the current law is unworkable.
In my view, what is now needed is a renegotiated consensus between the major technology companies, publishers and lawmakers, designed to address personal data protection and privacy long into the future.
Ordinary users need greater negotiating power online and stronger prohibitions against misuse of their private data. The public and publishers need protections against unprincipled requests that would purge important information about persons and past events from the public domain.
Together we should work towards building a strong foundation of trust and integrity between the public, technology providers and online publishers on whom we all now rely. If we can achieve this, then web technology can become part of the solution instead of being perceived as the source of the problem.
Interested in contributing to the #RTBF debate? Tweet me at @gabehughes @CambridgeUnion or @Mendeley_com