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Does Google Owe You a 'Right to Be Forgotten'?

You might have grown up worrying that everything you did wrong would go on your "permanent record."


On May 13, the European Court of Justice ruled that Google, whose search engine is the permanent record of our digital lives, must remove links to information about Europeans at their request, if that information is "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant."

Europeans will have the opportunity we all might like: to clean up our personal Web search results and remove the bits we're unhappy or embarrassed about.

Exactly who will decide what to remove, what criteria they'll use, and what new technology will scrub search results in the 28 countries of the European Union is still to be worked out, as is how this will affect the global Internet. By the way, Google controls more than 90 percent of the Internet search market in Europe.

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The court's decision stemmed from a complaint by Mario Costeja, a Spanish lawyer, who said that an outdated newspaper story about his past financial troubles was harming his reputation. He asked for it to be deleted from the paper's website, and for the link to that story to be blocked from Google's search results. When both refused, he took his case to Europe's highest court, which ruled that Google can be asked to hide results of some searches, when requested, even while the information itself remains on the Web.

In other words, consumers who use the Web have a "right to be forgotten."

Google proclaimed itself "disappointed" with the decision, and an industry coalition it belongs to raised the specter of censorship. "Our concern is it could ... be misused by politicians or others with something to hide who could demand to have information taken down," said James Waterworth of the Computer and Communications Industry Association in a statement. (Indeed, a provocative headline on the BBC website May 15 read, " Politician and paedophile ask Google to 'be forgotten'"). Google's lawyer said the ruling threatens free expression, and law professor Jeffrey Rosen tweeted his concern:

EU decision on The Right to Be Forgotten poses huge threat to free speech. Here's a warning about what's ahead. - Jeffrey Rosen (@RosenJeffrey) May 13, 2014

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But Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center takes a different view: Google "routinely records and stores search histories and directs advertising based on intimate personal facts. It provides name-based searches that shape our understanding of others. And it reveals to others information about us that we may wish to keep private."

That, plus its near monopoly, says Rotenberg, make it essential that Google abide by European privacy laws, providing tools for consumers to edit their personal information when necessary.

A German regulator expects Google to begin offering a link removal tool for European web users by the end of May.

Could an American judge make Google scrub unwelcome search results here? Not likely, most observers say. A Wall Street Journal blogger points to our judiciary's vigorous defense of free speech, plus legislation that shields companies like Google from responsibility for content they don't produce. Others generally imagine that the complicated procedures involved in cherrypicking search results would be impossible to create or police. The European decision has created discussion here that's sure to continue in coming months.


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