A European court issued a startling ruling yesterday.
Citizens have a “right to be forgotten,” the court said, and this right will now allow European citizens to order Google to remove links to information about the citizens that the citizens don’t like.
At first blush, this ruling sounds appealing: There is information on the Internet about all of us that we would like to be forgotten. And it is the rare individual who is pleased with everything that turns up when he or she does a Google search on him or herself.
(I hate what comes up when I do a search on my name, for example. A lot of it is mortifying and humiliating to me. I’ve never tried to hide it, and won’t, but if it suddenly disappeared, I wouldn’t rush to complain.)
Upon reflection, however, this ruling creates a whole host of potential problems, not least of which are harm to other people and a major administrative hassle for Google.
Specifically, the ruling allows people to order Google to remove links to information that is “old” and “irrelevant.” It doesn’t take much imagination to see how much wiggle room there is here.
Is a malpractice suit against a doctor from 7 years ago old and irrelevant? From the doctor’s perspective, it might be. From the perspective of potential patient, however, it might be important.
Is a drunk-driving charge from several years ago old and irrelevant? If the driver has long since stopped drinking and driving and recklessly endangering himself and others, then, yes, it might be irrelevant. But what if he hasn’t stopped drinking and driving? And what if he killed someone when he was drunk and driving instead of just getting charged. Would that make it more relevant?
Is an old child-molestation charge irrelevant? If it was an unfair charge that is still creating reputation problems for the accused individual many years later, then, yes, it might be considered irrelevant (and harmful). But what if the charge was justified and the accused child-molester moves into the house next door to your family? If there are public records or news stories out there that might put you on alert, wouldn’t you want to be able to find them?
Google’s likely response to this new ruling, assuming it remains in effect, will be to just take down any links that people complain about. This is what the company (and other companies) do with many copyright claims — they don’t evaluate the merits of the complaint, which would soak up even more administrative money and time. They just take them down.
And this, in turn, will lead to the Google search results for people who complain being whitewashed of links to unflattering or embarrassing information — even if the information is true. Importantly, it might also lead to Google search results being purged of links to any news articles, reviews, or any other “coverage” that the subject of that coverage doesn’t like. (A profile of me that you consider fair, I might view as a hatchet job.)
Meanwhile, the search results of everyone else, who might not have the time, money, or inclination to complain, will still contain links to as much unflattering and embarrassing information as ever.
Importantly, the “old and irrelevant” information itself will still remain posted online. We just won’t be able to find it. The court’s ruling only forces Google to take down search links — it does not force sites that host unflattering information to remove it.
Do we really want that?
Is that really better for society?
Does everyone really have a “right to be forgotten” that exceeds the right of everyone else to remember (or at least find) information about them that they — the searchers — might want to know?
The problem of the Internet forever preserving things that, a decade ago, would quickly have been forgotten is real, and it’s something we’re all having to get used to and deal with. But forcing Google to remove links to these things would likely be a step backwards, not forwards.
(A better solution might be to allow people to post responses to the information they don’t like, and have Google include links to the responses, too. That’s the way many restaurants and other businesses and individuals deal with negative but real reviews these days, and it works. More information is generally better than less, as is more information from a wide variety of sources.)
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