The ‘Right to be Forgotten’: A Right to Endless Argument
Medusa the Gorgon. (Thinkstock)
When you look for yourself online, are you happy with what the Web reflects back?
Unlike your real reflection, there’s very little you can do directly to control how the Web, and especially search, displays you. For some, self-Googling reveals a hideous Gorgon: the self as a collection of stupid or sorry episodes from the past.
In the United States, that’s your own drama. But elsewhere, it’s a different story. A European court ruling last week makes it the search engine’s problem. The Luxembourg-based Court of Justice of the European Union held that EU citizens have a right to ask search engines to hide publicly available data from queries for their own names.
The “right to be forgotten” that the judges outlined in 15,500-plus words of opinion is neither as expansive or as new as you might think. And this vague ruling’s fuzzy guidelines about who can invoke this right and what sites are exempt from responding to it amount to a full-employment act for the regulators and lawyers who get to sort this out.
(Disclosure: While the opinion mentions neither Yahoo Tech’s publisher Yahoo, nor its search provider, Microsoft’s Bing, both Yahoo and Microsoft are subject to it.)
Forgive us our debts
The case in question began in January of 1998, when a newspaper in Barcelona ran a government listing of properties being auctioned off to cover individuals’ social-security debts. One of the individuals affected, Mario Costeja González, found that a PDF with the listing kept appearing in searches for his name years after he’d paid up.
In 2010, Costeja González asked the Spanish data-protection authority to make the newspaper and Google hide that page. The authority ruled that the newspaper had no such obligation but that Google did, and the Court of Justice agreed.
How do you get from it being legal for a newspaper to publish government-provided information to it being potentially illegal for a search site to point to that data? The judges decided that indexing pages on the Web counted as “processing” the data, making Google subject to EU privacy directives.
The court said that by making it easy to put together different data points, a search site can provide a portrait of you that otherwise “could not have been interconnected or could have been only with great difficulty.”
And when that information appears “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant,” European citizens have a particular right to ask a search site to stop showing it in response to searches for their names. If the site ignores them, they can ask regulators to step in.
It doesn’t seem they can protest unflattering results appearing in response to more generic queries like “back taxes Barcelona” or “deadbeats in Düsseldorf.” And the ruling says nothing about social networks, which can be a rich source of misinformation. But if you look for your name in the EU and don’t like what you see, the court gives you some recourse.
Exceptions to the rule
That court’s opinion contains two massively vague carve-outs.
The obvious one covers people with public names. The court ruled that any right to be forgotten may depend “on the interest of the public in having that information … [and] the role played by the data subject in public life.”