What Google says, goes. Or so it seems. Recent Industry news is not coming out in Google’s favor, however, particularly on personal privacy, in Europe. Meanwhile in India it seems that we fail to have a positive privacy law at all.
There has been a court judgement in 2014 forcing Google to delete a link to a story revealing a Spanish man’s history of insolvency. This has rekindled an age-old debate – is privacy more important than the freedom of expression? What is the right balance?
Here is the story - Mario Gonzalez, a 58-year-old lawyer and calligrapher from northwest Spain, launched a landmark legal action against Google six years ago. He said that he had the “right to be forgotten” on the basis the story was outdated and no longer relevant; a protracted legal battle followed with one of the world’s largest and most powerful companies.
Internet giant Google has come off second best in this fight, with the European Court of Justice ruling earlier this year that search engines are effectively “data controllers” and therefore bound by EU Data Protection laws.
The London School of Economics commented on these events extensively.
Big institutions including my old college, the London School of Economics are interested in this judgement, because it has a direct impact on the future prospects of their alumni. Dr Orla Lynskey, a digital rights specialist from LSE’s Department of Law, says the ruling is significant for a number of reasons.
“Google now has to determine, on a case by case basis, whether the information in a story link is firstly compatible with the EU Data Protection rules. If not, whether there are still legitimate reasons to retain the link based on public interest,” she says.
Within six weeks of the judgement, handed down on 13 May, Google had received more than 70,000 requests to have story links removed, requiring staff to review over 250,000 URLs.
France led the campaign for privacy, with more than 14,000 requests by the end of June, followed by Germany (12,678), the United Kingdom (8,497), Spain (6176) and Italy (5,934).
The court has clearly stated that its findings apply to search engines, rather than the original publishers of the information.
Why target search engines?
Well, it says that Google has the power to project its results to a mass audience; and also, search results appear in an aggregated form in Google so it is not just a case of one link appearing in isolation. It is consistent with the idea in other areas of law that companies with significant market power have special responsibilities to uphold.
Indian Search Engines don’t have to comply
The ruling is not absolute because it only extends to searches originating from Europe and at this stage the US arm of Google does not fall within the scope of the EU’s Data Protection directive.
However, there will be a significant financial cost to the search engine which could also include organisations like Wikipedia.
The EU Justice Commissioner justified the ruling saying that Google reaped economic benefits from targeted advertising based on search results, and those benefits come with certain responsibilities. The court’s decision has established a default rule in Europe, with data protection and privacy triumphing over freedom of expression.
This puts the EU at complete odds with the United States, which explains why search results will produce different results in the two continents.
Why should students and teachers take note?
Dr. Lynskey says the judgement marks a distinct legal shift in Europe. “You could say this type of right is needed for a number of reasons. It means, for example, that a throwaway line expressed by a student in their university days does not come back to haunt them 10 years later when applying for a job.”
Thank you Dr Lynskey – in my day we were all taught by this same school to be careful how we live our lives, that our values are important to our work, and they should be visible in how we perform in the workplace.
Making a mark in the digital world is now dependent on many sets of algorithms – what we fail to see is that embedded in these algorithms are assumptions and responsibilities. India is in the first stages of a demographic up-curve – a huge number of young people are about to come into the work place, as Mr Modi says so often, and their workplace instruments and indeed their toys will most likely be digital.
Future designers of user experience or search engine ‘crawlers’ need to show that they are first and foremost human beings with a grasp of human values – if our tech teachers don’t start teaching this then future judgments like the one Google faces in Europe, are not far away.