Thursday, May 22, 2014

It's the EU court's ruling on Google that shows a "Stone Age" mentality

In the summer of 2012, a French court ruled that Google must delete certain search terms that linked to download sites that offered illegal free access to copy writed material, particularly films and music. This decision was almost impossible to enforce, and the only mechanism to prevent such downloads was to sue the download sites and force them to shutdown, which in fact happened in many cases.  

Now a European Union court has ruled that Google must remove search results upon request of individuals who demand the “right to be forgotten.” This case was initiated by a citizen of Spain, Mario Costeja Gonzalez, who was mortified by the fact that a search of his name in Google revealed embarrassing revelations about him, concerning the repossession and sale of his house in order to settle large unpaid debts owed to creditors.

The problem was that this information wasn’t provided by some malicious enemy of his; it was a story in a Spanish newspaper, which posted old stories in its on-line archives. This particular story was 16 years old, and the court claimed that this information was now “irrelevant” since the petitioner had settled his debts. To prevent any further misery this has caused him, Google was now required to “erase” AutoSearch terms that might lead to the rediscovery of this information.

But like the previous search term decision, this is almost impossible to do as long as there is a source of said information available. Newspapers still have a right to publish said material on-line, and all anyone has to do is search—perhaps a more difficult one—in order to find the information and create a new search link. Also, who is to say that if an individual is a bad credit risk (for example), that people do not have a right to know this?

Critics of censorship are denouncing the ruling, which seems to have an “us” against “them” flavor to it, meaning Europeans against the United States. Anti-censorship advocates are calling this a violation of “the fundamental” right of “freedom of expression” and information. The court did step clear of total censorship; there is still a “public interest” in examining the past of public figures who remain in public life, or whose decisions still affect it. And people who allow themselves to be quoted in newspapers—particularly on issues of public concern which they may or may not have competency to speak on—become public persons liable for public comment.

The issue ultimately is just how stringent censorship must be to eliminate any chance of anyone finding the information they seek if they look hard enough. In order to do so would certainly require an  impossibly high bar of compliance. It would no doubt ultimately require the virtual elimination of the Internet as a means of information retrieval, either in fact or by making the cost prohibitive for individuals. One of the EU court justices claimed that the ruling is intended to bring the Internet out of the digital “Stone Age.” In fact, the court’s ruling could potentially lead to just that outcome.

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