Google never forgets. Its spiders will scour the Web until there’s nothing left to index, retrace their steps to see if they missed anything, and repeat the process until the company crumbles. Keeping information away from those inquisitive digital arachnids is beyond most people’s abilities. Now a European court is trying to make them hide some of the data they’ve found.
Europe’s top court ruled Monday that people have a right to be forgotten — which, according to the court, means they have a right to ask Google to pull links from the search results shown whenever someone searches for their name. The ruling allows people to request that Google and other search companies remove links to Web pages containing “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant” information from search results connected to searches for their names.
The ruling has been regarded with skepticism from privacy advocates who support its intent but worry about its methods. Google isn’t spreading information on its own; it’s spinning a web that connects information from other websites and makes it easier to find. Removing the links to those sites from Google’s search results might make it easier for someone to forget the past, but that information is still accessible, even if it’s harder to find than it was before. As Emma Carr, the acting director of the Big Brother Watch advocacy group, told the Guardian:
The principle that you have a right to be forgotten is a laudable one, but it was never intended to be a way for people to rewrite history. Search engines do not host information and trying to get them to censor legal content from their results is the wrong approach. Information should be tackled at [its] source… otherwise we start getting into very dangerous territory.
The concerns demonstrate the hard cost of privacy. It’s easy to give companies access to data describing where we live, what we do, who we know, how we travel, and so on. It’s harder to protect that information and make sure that our digital pasts can’t haunt us. Fighting this paradigm with rules and regulations is a start, but as the latest European court ruling shows, it’s an incredibly murky one.
Which isn’t to say that fighting for privacy with technology is any easier. The Heartbleed bug that swept across two-thirds of the Web showed just how vulnerable our online infrastructure is. The revelations about intelligence agency spying showed that governments, technology companies, and hackers are all after the same information. If Snapchat is to be believed, it’s hard to make a photo truly disappear after a few seconds — removing other information can be even harder.
There is no perfect solution to this problem. Rules won’t be able to protect some ideals (the right to privacy) without infringing others (freedom of speech) for some time. Technology won’t offer better privacy until the infrastructure upon which the Web is built is rethought and companies are able to defy intelligence agencies in their pursuit of information.
So while this ruling might appeal to people who want to remove an unpleasant search result from their digital history, it’s still a flawed solution to a difficult problem that will continue. In the meantime, Google’s spiders will keep spinning their webs.
[image via Wallpapers99]