Over the weekend, I was asked by CNN if I would be able to write something about the ruling that was due on the right to be forgotten – it was expected on Tuesday, they told me. I said yes, partly because I’m a bit of a sucker for a media gig, and partly because I thought it would be easy. After all, we all knew what the CJEU was going to say – the Advocate-General’s opinion in June last year had been clear and, frankly, rather dull, absolving Google of responsibility for the data on third party websites and denying the existence of the right to be forgotten.
On Monday, which was a relatively free day for me, I drafted something up on the assumption that the ruling would follow the AG’s opinion, as they generally do. On Tuesday morning, however, when the ruling came out, all hell broke loose. When I saw the press release I was doing a little shopping – and I actually ran back from the shops straight home to try to digest what the ruling meant. I certainly hadn’t expected this – and I don’t know anyone in the field who had. The ruling was strong and unequivocally against Google – and it said, clearly and simply, that we do have a right to be forgotten.
I rewrote the piece for CNN – it’s here – and the main feeling I had was that this would really shake things up. I still think that – but that this isn’t the end of the world as we know it, despite some pretty apocalyptic suggestions going around the internet.
On the positive side, the ruling effectively says that individuals (and only individuals, not corporations, government bodies or other institutions) can ask Google to remove links (and not the stories themselves) that come up as a result of searches for their names. It’s a victory for the individual over the corporate – in one way. The most obvious negative side is that it could reduce our ability to find information about other individuals – but there are other risks attached too. Most of those concern what Google does next – and that’s something which, for the moment, Google seem to be keeping very close to their chest.
On the surface, Google’s legal options seem very limited – there’s no obvious route of appeal, as the CJEU is the highest court. If they don’t comply, they could find themselves losing case after case after case – and there could be thousands of cases. There are already more than 200 in Spain alone, and this ruling effectively applies throughout Europe. If they do choose to comply, how will they do so? Will they create a mechanism to allow individuals to ask for things to be unlinked automatically? Will they ‘over-censor’ by taking things down at a simple request – they already do something rather like that when YouTube videos are accused of breaching copyright?
My suspicion that one thing they will do is to tweak their algorithm to reduce the number of possible cases – they will look at the kinds of search results that are likely to trigger requests, and try to reduce those automatically. That could mean, for example, setting their systems so that older stories have even less priority than before – producing an effect similar to Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s ‘expiry dates’ for data, something that in my opinion might well be beneficial in the main. It could also mean, however, placing less priority on things like insolvency actions (the specific case that the ruling arose from was about debts) or other financial events, which would not have such a beneficial effect. Indeed, it could well be seen as detrimental.
The bigger risk, however, is to Google’s business model. Complying with this ruling could end up very costly – it effectively asks Google to make a kind of judgment call of privacy vs public interest, and making those kinds of calls is very difficult algorithmically. It might mean employing people – and people are expensive and slow… and reduce profits. Threatening Google’s business model doesn’t just threaten Google’s shareholders – it threatens the whole ‘free services for data’ approach to the net, and that’s something we all (in general) benefit from. I don’t currently think this threat is that big – but we’re still digesting the possibilities, I think.
One other possible result – in the longer term – which I would hope to see (though I’m not holding my breath) is less of a reliance on search, and on Google in particular. There are other ways to find information on the internet, ways that this ruling would not have an impact on. One of the most direct is crowdsourcing via something like Twitter – these days I get more of my information through Twitter than I do through Google. If you have a body of informed, intelligent and helpful people out there who are scouring the internet for information in their own particular way, they can supply you in a very different way to Google. They can bypass the filters that Google already put in place, and the biases that Google has (but pretends not to have) – with your own connections there are of course other biases but they’re more obvious and out in the open.
Indeed, I would also hope that this ruling is the start of our having a more objective view of what Google is – though the reactions of some that this ruling is the end of the world suggest rather the opposite. Further, we should start to think more about the kind of internet we want to have – and how to get it. I would hope that those bemoaning the censorship that this ruling might bring are equally angry about the censorship that our government in the UK, and many others around the world, have already brought in inside the Trojan Horse of ‘porn filters’. That kind of censorship, in my opinion, offers far more of a threat to freedom of expression than the idea of a right to be forgotten. If we’re really keen on freedom of expression, we should be up in arms about that – but we mostly seem to be acquiescing to it with barely a murmur.
What this ruling actually results in is yet to be seen – but if we’re positive and creative it can be something positive rather than something negative. It should be seen as a start, and not an end.