Google privacy law - analysis: The fact is, information doesn’t want to be controlled


Poor Mario Costeja Gonzalez. He’ll now forever be known as the person who owed social security debts to the Spanish government in the late 1990s. This was never his intention; indeed, he went to court in an attempt to get this detail about a past episode of his life removed from Google’s index. His victory in that case earlier this month has since prompted a huge debate about the “right to be forgotten”, but the associated publicity has provided a perfect illustration of how, as the popular slogan has it, “information wants to be free”. Attempts at suppression, whether noble or nefarious, will almost inevitably prove to be futile.

Google’s first step, taken on Friday, towards complying with that ruling (by offering a web form to EU citizens to request the removal of links that are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed”) would now be inadequate for Mr Costeja’s needs. He could spend weeks inputting links and still fail to remove the data from the public gaze.

Rather than go to court, he might have sought help from a company specialising in online reputation management. Its strategy to cope with unwanted results appearing in searches is to create or promote other pages containing your name, displacing offending ones further down the list.

The rationale behind this is that the first page of 10 results from a search engine is everything. We very rarely need to click through to page two or three, and consequently that initial list of 10 Google results has become the grand portal to the internet. This bestows Google with the status of a grand “data controller”, forcing it to comply with EU data protection laws, drawn up nearly 20 years ago to protect individuals. To give them back a bit of control.

We certainly worry about that lack of control: 92 per cent of Europeans are said, for example, to be concerned about mobile apps collecting data without consent. But at the same time, we gaily splurge colossal quantities of data about ourselves and other people. We happily surrender it, encouraged by social media firms, but simultaneously despise the idea of our privacy being compromised. It creates a truly bizarre tension, an extraordinary push and pull, where we yearn for the freedom of people to express themselves, just as long as it’s not bad stuff about us – whether that’s embarrassing pictures, spent convictions or just malicious misinformation. And while the “right to be forgotten” debate has been characterised, not least by Google’s Larry Page, as the righteous advocates of freedom of speech vs evil regimes who will retrospectively reshape the truth and suppress dissent, there are a bunch of people in the middle – the genuinely wronged, those with genuine grievances – who deserve to benefit from EU laws that were drafted with the best of intentions.

Having said that, we now have an absurd situation where Google is tasked with making decisions about what we should and should not see. In a sense that has always been the case, although the decisions are usually delegated to a top-secret algorithm, endlessly tweaked to give results that deemed “relevant”. But this new procedure isn’t remotely secret; it’s a human being, looking at the output from a web form and making a call on whether to delete a link.

That’s not the way the information superhighway was ever meant to operate, but it’s impossible to conceive of an effective administrative solution to this. Perhaps, in years to come, we’ll develop a more sanguine view of the preponderance of information available about us all, a new attitude towards privacy that would see Mr Costeja’s old debts and indeed all our past indiscretions as pretty inconsequential. It’s a lovely idea, but I won’t be holding my breath.

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