On Tuesday, the European Court of Justice ruled in favor of Mario Costeja Gonzalez (pictured above) of Spain in his suit against Google, aimed at getting them to remove pages related to Gonzalez’s 1998 debt troubles that he argued are now irrelevant. Europe’s top court ultimately decided that people have “the right to be forgotten.”
Here’s what’s wrong with that.
Google does not host the information. They did not create the information. The information is true and accurate. Google has been quite upfront about its role within the subject at hand, clearly stating in their mission statement that their mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” In other words, they aren’t the author that prints the words; they are the librarian that points you to the book you’re looking for.
If you view this strictly through the lens of efficiency, it is a puzzling case. In keeping with the metaphor above, if there are countless libraries throughout Europe, with librarians readily capable of pointing people to a single book, why target the numerous librarians instead of the single source of information?
The answer is actually quite simple; the author of the book is protected and the librarian is not. In the EU, people are provided with the freedom of expression, which means you cannot tell a newspaper to delete a webpage that is factually accurate, such as in the case of the Spanish newspaper who printed an advertisement about a property auction to recover Mr. Gonzalez’s debt 16 years ago. However, there are no rights for those that organize and present Europe’s information. In the eyes of the ECJ, since they cannot have the information removed from the original source, the next best thing is to remove the way in which people find that information. It’s like saying “Sure, you can write whatever you want, but when you’re finished we’re going to throw it down a well.”
The ludicrous side-stepping of one of the EU’s basic human rights aside, the repercussions of this ruling reveal how truly half-assed and devoid of thought it was. Google’s index is composed of trillions of webpages; and that’s just Google. All search engines operating in Europe will have to comply with this ruling. With their ambiguous language, the ECJ opens practically every webpage containing someone’s name up for debate. If it is not of the public interest, irrelevant or no longer relevant, the “data subject” has grounds to have it removed.
So who is to decide whether information is something the public is interested in or relevant? Why, Google, of course! Besides, its their job to determine relevance, right? In short, Google has just been told that they now have to enforce the very ruling against them, based on fuzzy requirements that leave everything up to interpretation. How often do you think Google will actually remove webpages from their index based on the requests of everyday users?
Here’s what will happen: Google will spend a ton of money hiring more people to handle the inevitable flood of removal requests that will come their way from anyone and everyone who has an unflattering page appear in searches for their name. Those new hires will spend 99.99% of their day rejecting these requests because:
A) People don’t understand what is and is not “eligible” for removal under this ruling, or don’t care and thought they’d try anyway
B) Due to the hazy language, Google can argue almost anything is of public interest or relevant
According to the ruling, every time Google rejects a request, the data subject can then bring it to the courts. In the end, Google will build a rejection team and the European legal system will be clogged with ridiculous efforts to deindex a webpage.
There’s a lot that’s scary about this ruling. Not only does it suppress the free flow and accessibility of information, but it potentially sets a precedent on how to silence voices without any constitutional conflict by taking away the primary method in which people now find and access that information. From a broader perspective, the ECJ’s ruling reinforces just how little the decision-makers across the world understand the Internet.
Read the ECJ’s summary of the ruling below.