Wednesday, May 14, 2014

EU Court ruling will probably complicate search engine, web service business in the US; debate on "right to be forgotten" will surely spread as an online reputation issue

The US media is hopping this morning over a ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg, that would give individuals the right to request search engine companies (like Google, Bing, and Yahoo!) to remove links to “old” stories about them on the Internet, if the stories were no longer of any valid public interest.  This could not be done for celebrities.  It does not apply to the United States or to residents of countries outside the EU.  I provided a detailed story yesterday on my International Issues Blog with a link to the official EU press release.  The US media stories refer to this as a “right to be forgotten” which is reportedly stronger in Europe than in the US. Nevertheless, I reviewed a book “Delete” by Mayer-Schoenberger on May 13, 2010 on the Books blog.  
The New York Times has a moderate editorial (“Ordering Google to Forget”) on the matter this, link here.   It links to the print story “European Court lets users erase records on web; Purged from Google; A fear that search will show only what the target wants” (David Stretifeld).  The Washington Post, in a story by Craig Timberg and Michael Birnbaum, writes “Ruling in E.U. may roil the Web; Court deals blow to tech firms; Citizens can demand that Google delete links”, and Hayley Tsukayama writes on the Switch blog about the difference between European and US attitudes toward privacy, link here.  In the Wall Street Journal, Jacob Gershman writes “E.U. Google ruling could make it harder to find information online”, link here. The WSJ refers to the European tradition of settling honor by duels, after which gripes could be “forgotten”. Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a piece by Sanny O'Brien, discusses the EU's attempted "scattergun censorship", trying to hide legally published facts on the public record in plain sight. 
The ruling could lead to many specific requests from Europeans, many of them frivolous.  The tech companies could have to bear a large cost with no obvious way to pay for it.  It could have an effect on their business model regarding user-generated content in the future, even in the US.

I do not expect that deletion of search results would affect traffic to my own sites and blogs in any significant way.  However, I can imagine other questions.  Although the EU ruling right now applies only to search engines, could it be extended to reference sites like Wikipedia, or even sites that purport to organize news commentary and provide some partial indexing of it (like my “do ask do tell”, or Vox Media, with its aggressive approach in this direction).   

I have, on just three occasions that I can recall, removed or altered content on my sites at the request of individuals because of unusual and non-recurring circumstances.  On one occasion, I removed a name from an article;  on another, I replaced a name with initials in a web copy of my first book.  I removed one article written by someone else and posted with permission in 2001 when he later asked me to remove it, and there was some question of factual correctness in that case.  (That is the only time I have ever removed an entire article.)  There have been no further such occurrences since 2006.  I could imagine an issue with images or public pictures, but they would be searchable only if they have been tagged (very unlikely in my operation).  

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