Friday TechMunch: The Right to Be Forgotten?

Last week the European Courts of Justice backed the “right to be forgotten”. Google must now delete “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” data from its search results at the request of a member of the public.

This landmark case against Google was brought to ruling by a Spanish man, Mario Costeja Gonzalez, who demanded an article related to the repossession of his home 16 years earlier be deleted from the search engine.

The EU justice commissioner welcomed the court’s decision saying, ‘The ruling confirms the need to bring today’s data protection rules from the ‘digital stone age’ into today’s modern computing world”, while a rather muted Google released a statement expressing it’s disappointment and asking for time while it analyses the implications on its business.

Since the law was passed on Tuesday a fierce battle between the EU, free speech advocates and privacy campaigners has erupted online. Many are arguing that this is the first step towards an era of online censorship.

The enormity of the ruling poses a logistical nightmare, as each request will have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The decision-making process raises a multitude of questions: who decides what is relevant and what isn’t?  How do you define legitimate v. outdated information? Would this vary if you were an MP, for example, or had been found guilty of a crime?

The ruling poses huge problems for brands, although experts believe businesses will be offered a grace period of a year or two to adjust. For web-based companies the law now threatens to add huge costs in complying with requests for the removal of unwanted information online. According to Michael Barnett of Marketing Week, companies will need to consider whether some business activities involving the publication of information about other people – even when factual and accurate – are even viable in Europe in the future.

How this ruling will play out in reality is yet to be seen. Undoubtedly it could become a handy tool for those wishing to re-shape their digital persona.  For example, graduates on the job hunt may turn to Google to delete that embarrassing university photograph.

When it comes to past mistakes however, it might be brands that end up profiting the most from the new ruling. I expect there are precious few companies out there that wouldn’t appreciate the ability to magically remove old reviews, unfortunate press coverage and the occasional error of judgment from their top search results.

If it becomes the norm for businesses to actively manage their reputations online in this way, the implications are huge: search would no longer be a medium for impartial information.

Since the disruptive ruling on Tuesday, over 600 requests have been submitted to Google. Those requesting content to be removed from the search engine include an ex-politician seeking re-election; a man convicted of possessing child abuse images asking for articles related to his conviction to be removed; and a doctor keen to erase evidence of negative reviews.

This is where difficulties will arise: balancing the right to personal privacy with information that is in the public interest. Search engines should be comprehensive and neutral, allowing the public, not the government to decide what information they can access online. “A simple way of understanding what happened here is that you have a collision between a right to be forgotten and a right to know. From Google’s perspective that’s a balance,” said Schmidt. “Google believes, having looked at the decision which is binding, that the balance that was struck was wrong.”