Edward Snowden’s 2013 NSA surveillance revelations brought privacy concerns into the consciousness of more people than ever before and then last month’s European Union ruling against Google raised privacy awareness to an even higher level. While some perceive the EU’s highest court ruling that citizens can have objectionable links removed from Internet search results as a victory, others see it as censoring with widespread complications. Finding a balance between the right to be forgotten and the right of others to know is complex and we’re far from a sound solution.
As expected, Google has been inundated with an influx of removal requests. Early requests included those from a convicted child pornographer, a politician with a sketchy past and a doctor with a questionable professional record. It’s easy to understand why they’d want their search results removed but it’s just as easy to understand the value to others of keeping those records online. Patients are entitled to know if a doctor they are considering using has a history of malpractice, voters are entitled to the history of a political candidate they’re considering voting for and parents are entitled to know about sex offenders in their midst in order to protect their children! Who determines the fine line between personal privacy and greater good? I don’t think the answer is Google.
Putting who’s entitled to what aside, Internet users have come to expect full and unbiased online search results – at least as unbiased as they can be when higher ranking search results can be purchased. The ability to do online research and to weigh pros and cons before making a decision has been a convenience easily taken for granted. Internet research has been valuable when it comes to assessing reputation therefore the ability to remove links to information deemed inappropriate compromises the integrity, completeness and trustworthiness of search results.
So how do we proceed? Rather than give Google authority to subjectively remove what it deems inappropriate, universal standards should be set up and agreed upon by a large and diverse body of people from private and public sectors. It’s not always about the law. Sometimes it’s simply about using common sense, doing the right thing and acting ethically. For example, I recently encountered a directory that refused to remove the home address of a client who feared her family’s safety was at risk. The directory argued they had no legal obligation to remove the information because it was obtained from public records. True, there is no legal reason, however why not comply with this request without a need for legal intervention? Why should anyone have to fight so hard to keep a home address out of prominent search results?
This leads back to a general set of guidelines that should be applied across all search engines, and not just Google. For example, the laws of COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, make it easy to regulate information that appears online about minors and thankfully these laws are already protecting minors in the United States. A standardized list of situations that qualify for removal of information needs to be created for everyone else.
In the meantime, the solution is clear. Since technology has made it easy for our misdeeds and indiscretions to end up online and be shared exponentially, we must control our behavior and reputations by acting responsibly and lawfully. Others may not share my opinion but I’m okay with people losing their right to privacy if they commit a crime or indiscretion. We cannot control the Internet but we can control ourselves and must take responsibility for our actions. We must also take responsibility for knowing what information of ours appears online in order to deal with it. For example, we can usually opt out of directories that publish and sell our personal information. If we see a negative article online, we can rebut it or attempt to balance it with something positive. When our reputation is threatened, we need to think wisely and carefully before acting so that we don’t inadvertently make a situation worse.
On the bright side, perhaps the growing lack of privacy and inability to hide or remove information will force people into better behavior and better habits. Since we are human and prone to making mistakes, perhaps we need to be fighting for the right to be forgiven instead of the right to be forgotten because forgiveness will not compromise the integrity of the Internet the way being forgotten will. A girl can dream, can’t she?
Until next time,… Stay Cyber Safe.