A court decision in the European Union that could force Google to remove offensive information in searches at the request of individuals is receiving harsh criticism from IT analysts who say that such a policy could ultimately diffuse the credibility of the Internet itself.
The decision, announced May 13 by the Court of Justice of the European Union, is a stunning reversal of an earlier opinion by an adviser to the Court of Justice of the European Union in June 2013 that said Google should not have to delete information from its search results when old information is pulled up that is damaging to individuals.
The key problem with the EU court's decision, said Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT, is that it puts Google and other search engine companies in the role of deciding what to remove and what not to remove when asked by individuals who feel that search information harms their reputations.
"I'm a strong believer in rights to personal privacy, but I'm not sure that Google is the company that should be in control of the issues that are central to the EU's ruling," said King.
"You're basically asking a global organization to be legally answerable to the subjective reasons of millions of citizens," he said. "I'm not sure Google should be responsible for that information."
Also worrisome is that the EU court ruling applies if someone is not happy with information that is found in searches about them, even if it may be true, said King. "In the EU, even if something is true but [an individual] feels uncomfortable about it, they could ask Google to expunge it as well."
Another IT analyst, Dan Olds of Gabriel Consulting, told eWEEK that the EU court decision creates a slippery slope that is not a good thing.
"It's a sanitizing of people's reputations," said Olds. "How long until this extends to Facebook [posts as well]?"
Already there are cases of people in the EU who are asking Google to remove objectionable information that is found in search since the EU court announced its ruling, according to a May 14 story by Reuters.
"Judging by the number of folks who have jumped on this quickly to get their information changed, there is obviously some pent-up demand for it," said Olds. "It's a bad precedent and a bad rule."
The EU court ruling is not the final word on the matter. The nations of the EU would have to adopt it as law to give their residents this option in the future.
The prospect of approval in the EU, said Olds, is almost a given, however. "I can't imagine any EU nation not approving it. This has a real solid populist bent to it, and there's already lots of fear about companies like Google knowing way too much about us."
Olds said that rather than just removing offensive information about an individual from search, a system could be set up to remove all search information about a complainant so that they can't just edit their online personas to clean up objectionable past behaviors. "The only fair way to do it would be if they want something removed, then Google should take everything off. It shouldn't be just negative things. It should be an all-or-nothing thing, not just leaving complementary things."
Ultimately, "what it does is it significantly reduces the usefulness of the Web and the Web as a source of solid information," he said.
Dana Gardner, principal analyst of Interarbor Solutions, called the EU court ruling "a situation where it erodes the very notion of what a search engine does" because deleted content will no longer give an accurate picture of the information that is available online.
People use a search engine "with a certain level of trust," said Gardner. "You want to feel this completeness, this comprehensiveness of coverage when you do a search. That's an important concept that Google needs to maintain."
The EU court decision throws that expectation out of balance, he said, because it would allow individuals to essentially change history and dilute the information that is out there.
"What if a company comes in, or a government wants the same kind of balance?" he said. "Then you're not going to be delivering completeness, but you'll be delivering [only the content] that a company or government wants you to deliver. I'm kind of troubled by this because I don't know where you draw the line. It erodes the very foundation of what a search engine is or does."