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.”
EU Decision in Google Search Info Removal Case Appalls Analysts
At the same time, said Gardner, the EU decision is flawed because, while it would allow search engines to remove reference data from searches, it does nothing to remove the information from its original source, which could be a newspaper or magazine archive or any other content repository.
“It’s troubling also because the content that people want to remove is still there,” he said. “I think this is a misguided decision and that it has a disastrous effect on search results, which are very important tools.”
For individuals who feel they have been wronged and then find that wrong in a search result, Gardner said he does have sympathy. Instead of requesting the removal of such information by Google or another search engine, that individual should instead take their complaint to a public agency that can correct any erroneous information, he said.
The EU court’s decision may not have been only about the particular case that was before it, he said. “The fact is that Google has a PR problem [on privacy]. They have an image problem. People are able to have a perception of Google being a privacy invader” and that could be contributing to the over-reaction by the court in this case, he said.
Could policies like this eventually make their way to the United States?
Pund-IT’s King said he doubts it. “It would require a sea change in legal and other attitudes here,” he said. “To imagine a similar law that could be passed in the current Congress, and let alone get such a ruling from the courts here, would be highly unlikely.”
In a reply to an inquiry from eWEEK about the information removal requests that Google has already reportedly received in the EU, a company spokesman told eWEEK in an email that “The ruling has significant implications for how we handle takedown requests. This is logistically complicated … because of the many languages involved and the need for careful review.”
In its May 13 ruling on the matter, the full EU court said that Internet search engine operators are, in fact, responsible for the processing of personal data that appears on Web pages published by third parties and must remove or correct the information in some cases.
“Thus, if, following a search made on the basis of a person’s name, the list of results displays a link to a Web page, which contains information on the person in question, that data subject may approach the operator directly and, where the operator does not grant his request, bring the matter before the competent authorities in order to obtain, under certain conditions, the removal of that link from the list of results,” the decision states.
In the 2013 case, a man in Spain had argued that Google searches of his name had uncovered a then-15-year-old announcement in a newspaper describing how a property he owned was up for auction because of nonpayment of Social Security, the court stated. The man wanted Google to remove the old information, which was damaging his reputation, according to the earlier case. The Spanish court originally accepted the man’s argument and ordered Google to remove the information from its search results. Google then appealed that decision and received the favorable opinion from the Court of Justice adviser, who ruled that the original Spanish court decision was wrong.
The latest Court of Justice action, however, trumps the original opinion by the court’s adviser. That means that Google and other search engine operators might have to make changes in such cases in the future and comply with some requests by individuals to remove old, outdated personal information.