Google has been charged with the task of gathering and reading requests from EU citizens who want certain content associated with them (youthful indiscretions, for example) removed from Google’s European sites, but new events in the case could have far-reaching consequences – as far as several thousands of miles away, across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States.
France is the EU country in the news behind the next wave of the Right to Be Forgotten law. While France’s data protection authority, the CNIL, has seen Google remove damning content from Google.fr (Google’s French site) and Google.de (Google’s German site). While Google has complied with the EU decision ordering the search engine giant to make haste and get on with delinking certain sites and data quickly, Americans who use Google.com can still access the EU-banned information.
Now, in the interests of protecting those who could find themselves the victims of discrimination due to being under investigation in a murder case, for example (in which they were quickly abandoned as the murderer), the CNIL is ordering Google to remove the “black mark” content from all of its sites – including American ones. Even Google.com would no longer be able to provide the information under the new law.
At stake in this case is the idea that the World Wide Web (the “www” in every URL) is now being seen as a possession of the world, not the possession of one company or even one country, even if Google is the search engine king. And content that’s viewable on one search engine site in another country could still prove damaging if an employer decided to check out the American site or have someone do it for him or her. The reality is that, as long as Google’s non-EU sites retain access to the information, then no individual can truly be free of the discrimination and stained reputation of news articles and blog posts. Deleting the information everywhere, including the US, would help in allowing individuals’ past crimes or suspicions about said individuals to disappear without a trace. That may be freeing for some individuals, but others see the “right to be forgotten” law as nothing more than the power of individuals to hide and withhold information that may prove helpful to others. For example, take someone who is guilty of raping a 12-year-old. That crime may have occurred 20 years ago, but it would prove helpful if the perpetrator ever wanted to work at a local daycare. Surely, the daycare would want to know if the individual had ever been inappropriate or a danger to children in his or her past.
“If we’re asking Google to comply in every version of Google worldwide, it becomes very hard to say where we want Google to draw the line. It’s a race to the bottom. Governments all around the world will immediately say, ‘Great, we’ll ask for things to be deleted worldwide,” said Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.
While Google understands its obligations to EU citizens, the company sees the new French request as nothing more than dictatorial and usurping in its authority. “We believe that no one country should have the authority to control what content someone in a second country can access,” said Google global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer last week. For Google, then, the EU decision should have no bearing on what happens in the United States.
The problem with Google’s perspective
Google is at the center of all this, and, that being the case, should have very little to say on the matter. Of course Google doesn’t want the decision to be made in favor of deleting the content here: that would mean that the company would lose even more control over its global search engine than just deleting the content via its French website!
The reality is that the Google search engine has global access and that access isn’t restricted to just the US, or just France, etc. If France had access to French sites only, and America had access to only American sites, then France would be overreaching and overstepping its bounds. Unfortunately, that is not the case: I need never set foot in France today to access French websites. Similarly, a Frenchman need never set foot in the US to read American websites. Even at university several years ago, I was fascinated at just how rapid of a pace technology kept – so much so that I could sit in an American university but read the morning paper about events in Tel Aviv.
The internet has one consequence: it has reminded us that we’re not just local, state, or national citizens, but global or worldwide citizens, too – and what we do in say, the state of Florida (in the US) can be read about in Italy within seconds. The World Wide Web, contra Google’s belief, cannot be treated as a single county or state or territory. It connects all states, countries, and continents.
Individual right versus collective rights: the future impact of the right to be forgotten ruling
Google has never wanted the responsibility of overseeing the right to be forgotten ruling: “You guys are now in charge of editing what’s out there in the world. In the past that’s not a responsibility we felt we had,” said Google CEO Larry Page last year in a New York Times interview. No one could have foreseen the EU ruling, but when you’re the search engine giant, it comes with the territory.
Apart from the issues of being forgotten and the reasons for that, there is another political issue lurking: that of individual rights versus collective rights. Up until now, the individual has always taken a back seat to the world as a whole (“the greatest good for the greatest number” is the mantra of Americans.). With the EU’s ruling and the French CNIL’s request for Google, the rights of the individual are being placed above those of the world.
The individual wants certain incriminating information to be deleted, but what about the rights of daycares to know about a child molester – and prevent that person from being hired? What about the rights of trucking companies to know that a potential driver has a history of drunk driving and is responsible for killing three families in three separate head-on collisions 15 years ago? Don’t you think those companies or, a school, for example, should have access to that information so as to prevent the hire of a person who could put thousands of child lives in danger (if not kill them)?
What about the rights of national and global pharmaceutical companies to know about a potential hire who’s had a history of drug dealing, mixing drugs, and killing patients before hiring someone who proves to be a fatal mistake? But, if the new ruling makes its way across the world, the interests of the world will take a back seat to the interests of that one individual.
The CNIL request makes sense, in light of the fact that maintaining any access to the removed information is still ultimately a risk for a political candidate running for office, for example. At the same time, however, the question we must ask ourselves is this: is it fair to put the interests of that individual above the interests of the collective world? Should the world be deprived of the knowledge that may incriminate because it’s biased against a perpetrator or potential suspect in a murder case? Should blamed individuals be allowed the right to delete any “black marks” on their reputation on the Web because those indictments are damning?
Growing up, I was taught that actions have consequences that you could never limit the consequences, so you needed to think before you act. The right-to-be-forgotten ruling is making the world rethink the notion that bad acts can haunt you later in life. Is that necessarily a good thing? Perhaps facing those bad actions head-on and accepting the consequences is part of what we need to live as global citizens. Taking away human responsibility and removing the evidence of that may prove to do more harm than good in the long run.