Is it possible to erase our recorded history on the internet?

Is it possible to erase our recorded history on the internet?

Google’s Advisory Council has met with experts in Rome to discuss “the right to be forgotten”. Familyandmedia attended the meeting and offers its readers a report.

Madrid, Rome, Paris, Warsaw, Berlin, London and Brussels. These are the cities included in the European tour of Google’s Advisory Council, a council that was recently established to tackle the sensitive issue of the right to be forgotten. “We are here to listen”, began Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google and moderator of the meeting that took place in Rome on September 10 th. Familyandmedia was there to report for its readers.

But let’s take a step back for a moment. Last year on May 13th the European Court of Justice established, following a complaint filed by a Spanish citizen, that search engines – and therefore all of Google, as 90% of online searches in Europe are conducted through Google – are not merely “neutral gatherers”, but responsible for how online personal data is processed.

There is now the opportunity to request the removal of information -regardless its original source- from a search engine if it is considered to be in any way harmful to a person. This is the so called right to be forgotten. This is a new and delicate task that Google & company is only facing in Europe, given that the issue was raised by the European Union’s Court of Justice. At present other international tribunals have not ruled on this issue.

In view of the sensitivity of the issue and the lack of legislation dealing with the matter at hand, and in order to avoid falling into the darkness of uncertainty, Google has decided to establish an Advisory Council, a committee put in place to examine the situation. In addition to Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, and his right-hand man on all legal issues, David Drummond, the group also includes, among others, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, Frank La Rue, special Envoy of the United Nations for the Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion, and Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, former Federal Minister of Justice in Germany. In addition the Council also includes internationally renowned journalists and prominent university professors. The issue at hand is in no way easy and brings with it many questions. We may summarize them in two interrogations:Is it better to safeguard the person’s right to privacy or that of the public’s right to information? Personal freedom come first, or that of the expression of the Press? The question is not a simple one, as it is dealing with two fundamental human rights that are apparently at odds with each other. And then comes the more practical questions, concerning who will make the decision to remove the indexing on a search engine related to an event or a person. Would it be the search engine itself, a judge, a special “authority”? And according to what criteria?

Google’s first step, in addition to establishing this special council in order to soon find a definitive solution, was to allow European internet users to request that certain links be removed from search engines. As a result, in these first few weeks over 100,000 requests have been submitted, a number that is expected to grow. Google has declined around half of these requests, on grounds of public interest of news related to those people claiming for removal.

But perhaps what is also worth pointing out, aside from the current debate and all individual observations and expert opinions, is the way in which Google has shown a policy of transparency and shared solutions. Google faced the problem, it did not close itself off, nor hide in silence under the pretense of being right, nor did it get lost in useless controversies and accusations. Google did not make a fuss; it did not cry out for the “sacred right” of freedom of expression. Instead, Google laid all the facts on the table, in order to find a solution that everyone – those within and outside of the company – can agree on.

In the debate held in Rome, the two different legal and cultural attitudes that are characteristic of both sides of the Atlantic come to the surface. : one more protective of the rights of the person by the State, more paternalistic so to say, the European tradition; and the other more liberal, more friendly of freedom of expression...and of trade. This has been in further detail in an article on our site:

There is one final note to keep in mind. By the end of November, Article 29 Working Party (the organization that collects European Authorities for Personal Data Protection) should be publishing the guidelines that National Authorities will be called upon to follow when dealing with appeals on the right to be forgotten.

Google’s move with this “European tour” was certainly smart and clearly made with the future in mind. In this way, along with finding a shared solution, keeping costs to a minimum, and avoiding as much contrast as possible with the public, stakeholders, investors, customers, media and society in general, Google has granted itself a formidable shield against future attacks – from the courts and others – and is committed from the beginning in a subdivision of responsibility, which at the same time mitigates the guilt and renders small the demerits of the American multinational company. It is also true, however, that the problem is not just a Google proble, inasmuch as a range of political, cultural, social and ethical issues are involved and a compromise must be reached between all the agents involved (government, companies, politicians and citizens).

The path ahead is certainly still a long and complicated one. However, everyone is devoted to finding a balanced solution in order to prevent the internet from becoming a digital Wild West.

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