Google must remove links that reveal person information when European citizens request it. Such is the responsibility of search giants in the post-Snowden era.
Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo are all struggling with the new European Union Court ruling earlier this week. The EU Court ruled that any European request from a citizen to remove his or her information from a site must be honored by these three major search engine giants, the ruling said: “The operator of a search engine is obligated to remove from the list of search results displayed following a search made on the basis of a person’s name links to webpages published by third parties and containing information related to that person,” the court opinion stated. European privacy laws do allow individuals to have their information pulled, even in cases where individuals have a criminal record in the EU.
Since the EU ruling handed down earlier this week, Google has seen 1,000 link removal requests made by EU citizens who want to reveal information removed from Google’s search engine. In one explicit case, a pedophile wants his information removed from Google’s search engine – a troubling thought for an employer who wants to avoid hiring a pedophile to work in a daycare or high school with children. In another link removal request, a British politician wants troubling information about him removed so that he can increase a popularity with British voters – whom he fears won’t vote for him if certain troubling information is linked via Google.
Microsoft and Yahoo have had their share of requests as well, but Microsoft seems to be more on the side of ensuring user privacy than Google or Facebook has been in recent days. Microsoft’s whole “Scroogled” campaign has been done with the goal of helping consumers see that Google’s ads, rampant in email and allowed with other webpages, are targeted to consumers based on previous engine searches and specific information Google has on its users. Google, in fact, has forced the hands of consumers who would rather not submit personal information by requiring YouTube users (a Google-run site) to maintain a Google+ social media account in order to have access. Some say Google has done this with the goal of boosting its social network user base, but others say that Google’s treasure trove of personal information has been the motivating factor behind the move.
What the EU’s decision means for search engines
The EU decision issued this week forces the hands of search engine operators who would rather not have anything to do with the user information they broadcast across the World Wide Web on a daily basis. Google, the top search engine giant in the world, has gone on record as saying that it doesn’t have any responsibility toward users to protect their personal data. In an appeal to stop a lawsuit against Google regarding wiretap privacy laws, Google’s lawyers wrote the following in their appeal:
“Just as a sender of a letter to a business colleague can’t be surprised that the recipient’s assistant opens the letter, people who use web-based email today can’t be surprised if their emails are processed by the recipient’s [email provider] in the course of delivery. Indeed, a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.”
To Google’s response, Consumer Watchdog representative John M. Simpson replied,“Google’s brief uses a wrong-headed analogy; sending an email is like giving a letter to the Post Office. I expect the Post Office to deliver the letter based on the address written on the envelope. I don’t expect the mail carrier to open my letter and read it. Similarly, when I send an email, I expect it to be delivered to the intended recipient with a Gmail account based on the email address; why would I expect its content will be intercepted by Google and read?”
In addition to its cavalier attitude toward user privacy, Google killed its Ap Ops feature in Android 4.3 that prevented apps from collecting personal data from your smartphone when downloading an app. At the time Google was confronted about the issue, the company claimed that “it wasn’t supposed to be” in Android 4.3 Jelly Bean. When not preventing the collection of personal data, Google has been on the manhunt to collect personal data of its own. In November 2013, Google was accused by a Dutch regulator of updating its privacy laws without alerting Dutch citizens as to the updated laws while stealing personal information simultaneously. Google also faced privacy violations with five European countries: UK, Italy, Germany, Spain, and France. In December 2013, Spain took Google to court over its user privacy violations, with Spain fining Google $1.23 million over its changed privacy laws that failed to alert Google users.
Microsoft hasn’t been as terrible as Google, but the company’s still guilty of sorting through user information. The company did this earlier this year when it discovered that a Microsoft employee was guilty of leaking secrets about the company to a French blogger – by way of the employee’s Hotmail account. In the end, Microsoft updated its user privacy and has promised not to go through user email accounts – even if it thinks it has the right to do so: “Courts do not issue orders authorizing someone to search themselves since obviously no such order is needed. So even when we believe we’ve probable cause, it’s not feasible to ask the court to order us to search ourselves. However, even we should not conduct a search of our own email and other customer services unless the circumstances would justify a court order if one were available.”
Whatever can be said against Microsoft, it is committed to user privacy and has issued a statement promising to do so. Alongside of the statement, Microsoft has vowed to update its user privacy laws to ensure that Microsoft customers can trust the company.
These events above have been related to user privacy, but it goes to show that the search engine giants have been nonchalant about user privacy in the past – and the EU has decided that it’s time for Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo to take more responsibility and care with user data. You can’t be a search engine giant, have unlimited access to data, maintain that data on the World Wide Web on a daily basis, and not care who or what accesses such data or publishes it in a harmful manner. The search engine is the hub of personal information; if Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo don’t care for our personal data, who will?
What the EU decision means for consumers
EU citizens who want to control their personal information and how far it stretches will now be able to do so. This is a win for those who are committed to privacy laws and overseeing their personal data on the Internet. At the same time, it is a loss in cases where a pedophile could be hired because he lies on his application (and there’s no information on Google to uncover his past). The same goes for a corrupt politician who only wants to conceal his information: how can you place the best of confidence in a guy who may be corrupt, but is good at hiding his information?
These situations (and many others) present a dilemma for the EU Court, but the Court is, at the same time, doing its best to care for average individuals who want their privacy maintained on the Web. There are individuals out there who aren’t dirty politicians or pedophiles, but simply want their privacy maintained. They are people who want to browse the Internet each day and not have all their personal information revealed to everyone. They haven’t committed any crimes or told any lies to anyone, but they want to have a certain amount of control over their data. Should the EU Court not represent them in the decision, too?
In cases such as these, one must accept the good with the bad. There will never be an easy decision in such cases, but the EU Court has an obligation to look out for the majority of EU citizens. There will always be a corrupt politician or criminal who slips through the cracks, but there are millions of harmless individuals who don’t want to become “celebrities” apart from their individual consent. At the end of the day, if the good doesn’t serve the greatest number, what “good” is it?