Should Google have to delete information from its search results when that information is damaging to individuals who claim to be harmed by the content?
That’s the question being asked in a European court as Spain’s data protection authority argues that Google should be required to remove damaging information about individuals from its search results, according to a Feb. 26 report from Reuters.
The problem with that position, according to Google, is that the search company would have to essentially scour every piece of information for accuracy as part of the search process, which Google argues wouldn’t be feasible.
The landmark case, according to Reuters, “poses one of the thorniest questions of the Internet age: When is information really private?”
The case, which is being presented before the European Court of Justice, involves a complaint from a man in Spain “who made a Google search using his name and uncovered an announcement in a newspaper from several years earlier saying a property he owned was up for auction because of nonpayment of social security,” reported Reuters. A Spanish court upheld his argument and ordered Google to remove the information from its search results. The case was appealed by Google, sending it to its present legal venue.
The problem is that the issues at stake are complex, involving everything from information freedom to data integrity and protection to whether the Internet needs a police presence. The central questions also revolve around just who can be seen as a publisher of information on the Internet and whether that includes search engine companies like Google, which aggregate and search huge stores of data.
“Lawyers for Google will argue the search engine company should not have to erase lawful content which it did not create from its massive search index,” according to Reuters. “Spanish officials will argue that Google should delete information from its index where an individual’s privacy is breached.”
The legal challenge could take nine months to a year before it is decided, the report noted. “Supporters say that if Google is asked to delete such information it will create a slippery slope leading to all sorts of data being deleted for spurious reasons, and it would essentially make Google the responsible party,” the article stated.
The case is most certainly being watched carefully around the world and could serve as a model for similar cases elsewhere on the globe.
Jeffrey T. Child, associate professor in the School of Communication Studies at Kent State University, said the Spanish case has interesting implications on privacy and on what is posted online.
“It’s a sticky environment we have now where so much information can be posted online about people—including information that they may or may not be aware of,” Child told eWEEK. “And then there’s the issue of who, if anyone, can take it down. I do think it is a huge can of worms.”
Google Privacy Case in Spain has Global Implications for Online Content
In the big scheme of things, it’s not just a question that is being asked in Spain, he said. There have been similar cases here in the United States and elsewhere, such as X-rated photos of ex-lovers that are posted on Websites. When the photos are discovered by the people shown in the photos, they often try to get them removed, he said.
“I think the responsible approach is that when people find such content about themselves, they should contact the people who put it up and go from there” to ask for its removal, said Child. “There are these complexities with what people do post and what [victims] expect they will be able to have control over.”
For the people who post such content, they may not think it is offensive, Child said, yet for the person whose information is posted they may not feel that they gave anyone else the right to post such things.
“There may be some disagreement about that,” he said.
So should Google have to police these kinds of situations between two parties?
Not necessarily, according to Child. “I think that it’s not going to be Google’s responsibility to take this kind of information down,” he said. “They are just a conveyer, an indexer of this information.”
In some cases, the courts are holding people responsible for what they post and for harm that comes in connection to such posts, said Child. On the other hand, such claims have to be balanced against the right to free speech.
“It’s a delicate issue because people should have the right to say what they think, and that’s why it’s not Google’s responsibility to take things down,” he said.
The Spanish case highlights the controversial issues wrapped up in this matter, said Child.
To protect themselves, everyone should regularly conduct Web searches using various search engines for their own name to see what is being said about them online, Child recommended. “I’m surprised when I interact with students who say they’ve never Googled themselves. We’re in a day and age when you can’t neglect doing that.”
If a person discovers something negative that is being said about them online and violating their privacy, then they can contact the Website and negotiate for its removal, he said.
So can the negative information go away entirely?
“That’s questionable,” Child said, “but doing something is better than being oblivious to it.”