Earlier this week, the European Court of Justice has made a controversial ruling that affects not only companies handling search engines, but also Internet users everywhere.
The entire case started a few years back, when a Spanish man complained that Google was returning some old links in a search by this name. The links in question led to some articles published by Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia in 1998 in which his name was linked to an auction notice of his repossessed home.
Mario Conteja Gonzales doesn’t believe that those links should still be available for anyone to see, considering how much time has passed and the fact that the issue is long behind him and no longer relevant.
The European Court decided yesterday that Google, and implicitly any search engine, should remove the links that were no longer relevant.
“The operator is, in certain circumstances, obliged to remove links to web pages that are published by third parties and contain information relating to a person from the list of results displayed following a search made on the basis of that person’s name. The Court makes it clear that such an obligation may also exist in a case where that name or in formation is not erased beforehand or simultaneously from those web pages, and even, as the case may be, when its publication in itself on those pages is lawful,” the file reads.
If the search engine refuses to comply with the request, the individuals should complain with the authorities and the courts will decide whether or not the links should be removed or not.
In theory, this doesn’t sound completely awful, but in practice, it’s going to be a nightmare. Search engines would have to put in a lot of work to weed out such links, while the entire process of determining if a piece of information is relevant or not is highly subjective.
Aside from the obvious legal issues that this decision will spark in the future, there’s also the implication it has on the freedom of expression.
How long will it take before someone is offended by some article published online that Google links to in a search? Before someone claims that he or she is completely rehabilitated and tries to hide the past? Before a politician tries to hide a decision made a decade ago that no longer fits with the current agenda?
The answer is “not long.” In fact, it has already happened. A pedophile wants his history hashed out, a doctor wants his patients' reviews taken down, and a politician wants to run for office once more and his past conduct may reflect badly on his efforts.
Wikipedia’s Founder Jimmy Wales stood by Google yesterday and said that this new decision from the European Court was astonishing and that it didn’t make sense. Considering that Wikipedia basically writes history in its many pages and keeps track of what happens every day, Jimmy Wales is probably wondering how long it will take before a court asks the site to alter its own entries.
While it may sound dramatic, ordering search engines to remove “irrelevant” links allows altering history, which is not always ok.
Furthermore, we’re back to the same old story – search engines being held responsible for content they did not produce. Just like it happens with torrent sites on a frequent basis, it’s not the search engines that are responsible for the content, but the publishers.
What the European Court has managed to do here is superficially fix a problem and create a bunch of other ones for everyone else involved. The content that these people want hidden from search engines does not vanish just because the links are removed and will still be searchable on the original sites, and therefore, easy to find.
If they actually wanted to help people get their “right to be forgotten” when it came to the online world, they should have gone to the source of the problem, namely the content producer.