I read with interest Professor Luciano Floridi’s report from the first two legs of what the Guardian described as ‘Google’s privacy ethics tour of Europe’. Floridi is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the Oxford Internet Institute, and one of the experts appointed by Google to its ‘Advisory Council’ on the right to be forgotten.
As would be expected from such an expert, it is a well crafted report and explains very well some of the key ethical questions being addressed through this public consultation. As Floridi puts it:
“The two words most frequently used by all participants in the meetings were “complex” and “balance”, and they describe the situation well. The debate is complex because there are many elements interacting with each other.
The actual ruling, with its pro and contra, including its inconsistency with the advocate-general’s opinion; the role of search engines as intermediaries or data controllers; the difference between availability and accessibility of information online; the so-called rights (to be forgotten, to information), the real rights behind them (privacy and freedom of expression), and the ways in which they are interpreted on the two sides of the Atlantic; the concepts of relevance and of public interest, both very slippery; the procedural uncertainty about who should decide which links are rightfully removed and who should be informed about it.”
There is one element, however, conspicuous by its absence from Floridi’s analysis: a consideration of the power of Google. That power is considerable, and wielded in many different ways. Indeed, it could be said that the power of Google is at the heart of the whole debate over the right to be forgotten, and without taking it properly into account it will be impossible to come to sensible, practical and effective conclusions over how to deal with the right to be forgotten.
Power over what is found – and not found
The reason behind the Google Spain ruling, to start with, was connected with the power that Google wields: ‘Googling’ someone is probably the most important way to find out information about a person. The Spanish man about whom the ruling was concerned felt that when he was Googled the information was misleading and unfair. Google is at the heart of things: how they set their algorithms, how they index the web, what they include and exclude, what they rate highly – and what they rate as insignificant – matters in ways that are often hugely underestimated. And yet, if you read a lot of commentary – even the expert commentary of Professor Floridi – it seems as though Google are a mere conduit, their algorithm organic and their results generated purely in the interests of freedom of expression. If it’s interesting and relevant, those algorithms will find it for you. Google, in this view, are a purely neutral organisation, providing a service to the planet.
That’s a deeply naive assumption. Google is a business – and like all businesses, its bottom line is the bottom line. Google will do what is best for Google as a business. That may often turn out to be what serves freedom of expression best – if we can’t find what we need to find by using Google, we’ll find another way – but sometimes it won’t be. Google takes down masses of links on the basis of copyright claims – because its interests are best served by complying with the law of copyright and by keeping cordial relations with the rights-holders. That’s an infringement of freedom of expression – but in the eyes of the law and the eyes of Google, an acceptable one. Google doesn’t link to child abuse images – and quite rightly so – but that’s also an infringement of freedom of expression. Google complies with local laws and other considerations as and when Google finds it appropriate to do so – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that approach. Indeed, it’s an entirely appropriate approach – but it means that casting Google as the great champion of freedom of expression is only telling part of the story.
Power to set the agenda
The second aspect of power that needs to be taken into account is Google’s power to control the process and indeed to set the agenda. This whole roadshow was set up by Google – the advisory council was set up by Google, where they visit and when, who is called to give evidence, what the agenda of their meetings are and so forth is all, directly or indirectly controlled by Google. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this, and in some ways it’s entirely appropriate, but it does mean that it should be viewed in that context. This isn’t some neutral, independent body making an academic analysis of the ethics of the right to be forgotten – it’s a Google appointed body, somewhat akin to a board of trustees, taking soundings on Google’s terms. They wouldn’t have been appointed if they weren’t either predisposed to be on Google’s side, or at least seen to be malleable. It also reflects an apparent tactic that Google has employed in the internet governance and regulation space more generally. By giving individuals with high personal reputation positions of importance, flying them on private jets, and generally treating them like royalty, Google creates powerful external allies. Google’s eight experts are already acting in some ways as though they were more expert than the DPAs and other European organs: it gives Google a chance to blend its choices between the best of a set of alternatives. The DPAs do, at least, appear to have noticed this.
Google seems to have been setting the agenda over the reporting of the right to be forgotten since the day it came out – many (including myself) have wondered whether Google has been deliberately overreacting to the ruling, deleting links to stories when they really didn’t have to, to try to make the ruling look ridiculous. Those stories began very shortly after the ruling, but they continue to this day – the most recent being the story that links to a positive story about an artist being removed seemingly at the artist’s desire. It’s a deeply unconvincing story, and generally couched in terms that misunderstand the ruling. Suggestions that Google was ‘forced’ to remove the link are quite wrong: a request is made, and then Google can decide to delete or not to delete – deletions being if the information is old or irrelevant – and if they choose not to, the requester can either take legal action or ask the data protection authority to adjudicated. Even in the Guardian, which really should know better, it was suggested that “Google was required to enact the court’s decision”. No. Google was not required to do so. They could, and on the face of it they should, have refused to do so. If they were really the guardians of freedom of expression, they would have – but there are wheels within wheels here, and making the ruling look ridiculous seems, again, at least on the face of it, to matter more to them.
Power in other ways
Google’s immense resources mean that it can wield its power in many more ways. Lobbying, both open and hidden, is a big deal – the amount of effort put into shaping the reform of the data protection regime so it suits Google better has been colossal. Current and ex-Googlers are now in the House of Lords (Joanna Shields, appointed by David Cameron in August, used to run Google’s Europe division) and in the White House (Megan Smith, Google VP for Development is Obama’s new Chief Technology Officer and senior technology advisor, appointed earlier this month). Google provides funding to think tanks, and to academic organisations – indeed, they’re one of the biggest funders in these areas. Though this funding is given without strings attached, it is hard not to feel that there is at least some influence on the subjects that are researched, and the terms on which they are researched. No-one bites the hand that feeds them without at least thinking about it. Google has a critical role to play in how technology functions, how businesses function – and in how the media functions. The media in particular sometimes seems far less critical of Google than it might be – except in terms of its taxation policies.
None of this should detract from the way that Google does provide great products – and that things like its search engine do provide a huge amount of help for freedom of expression and so forth. That, however, should not prevent us from seeing the impact of the power that it wields – and taking that power into account when looking at things like privacy and freedom of expression. When trying, as Professor Floridi says, to find the right balance, with all those complex factors to deal with, that power must be taken into account. If it isn’t, that balance will never be found.