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The European Union’s high court ruled Tuesday that users should have the opportunity to remove old, irrelevant and even embarrassing links from Google’s search engine. But while the extent of the new mandate is unclear, it has already spurred questions about whether it might hamper free speech in Europe and abroad.
The European Court of Justice’s decision makes it so that, in some cases, users can request Google to remove particular links, such as newspaper articles or even legal documents, from search results. Rather than permanently erasing content, the webpages will still exist but instead will be much harder to find through Google. The EU’s decision reverses last year’s preliminary court opinion, which sided with Google, saying that the company wouldn’t have to remove links to comply with privacy laws. Other search engines, such as Yahoo, weren’t affected by the court’s decision.
But while Tuesday’s decision ends a years-long tug-of-war between Google and the EU over the Internet giant’s data collection practices, it raises practical and privacy concerns. “One of the unusual things about this case is that the [petitioned article] could stay up, but Google couldn’t link to it. [But] is it OK if Google linked to it from the U.S.? We don’t know yet,” Parker Higgins, an Electronic Frontier Foundation activist and spokesperson, told ThinkProgress.
Another concern is whether a “removed” link could show up in other, broader search terms. For example, Mario Costeja Gonzalez, a lawyer with past debt problems who brought the case against Google, said that a Google search of his name linked to articles on the foreclosure of his house 16 years prior. But as is, the court’s decision doesn’t specify whether the article referring to the foreclosed home could show up in other, more general Google searches for “foreclosures,” rather than for his name, Higgins said. Also, because the ruling only names Google, other search engines aren’t bound to it.
The most serious issue, however, is the judgement’s impact on free speech. “Limiting what sorts of things a search engine can link to…It’s a specialized area of speech, but it’s real speech. And it affects what kinds of news people can discuss,” Higgins said. “It puts a chilling effect on journalists’ reporting,” and to what they can link. The ruling potentially jeopardizes the general social standard that published content can be freely discussed, he said.
An EU official told the New York Times, as the ruling reads now, regular citizens could theoretically could ask European companies, not just Google, to take down unwanted content that’s somehow connected to their identity.
Each country will likely adapt the EU’s decision to best fit its needs, with several possibly using the same standard. But while the decision only affects Google in Europe, the company could make it a part of their overall privacy policies.
“Given how dramatic this ruling is, it raises the possibility that this could apply to more things: other search engines, news sites, aggregators, and individuals. It doesn’t make clear where the boundaries are,” Higgins said.
The ruling is the latest blow to United States-based tech companies — namely Google and Facebook — in their longstanding battle with European privacy laws. The European Union has threatened to sanction Google and Facebook for various privacy law violations on several occasions over the years. In 2012, Facebook had to updated its privacy terms after Ireland’s data protection agency found the social network’s policies, especially its use of facial recognition software, violated European laws. As a result, Facebook gave users the opportunity to opt of many of its features.
Overall, the EU has broader and stricter privacy laws than the United States, heavily stressing citizens’ rights to control their personal information and making companies accountable — even overseas. The U.S. lags behind on all but medical records, letting most non-health sector companies govern their own privacy practices. But that could change as Americans have become more cognizant of data privacy after former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed mass data collection by the government, and as several major retailers suffered huge data breaches. As a result, some legislators have pushed for better protections, calling for the end of the NSA spy program and reviving talks around tougher laws that protect personal data collected by private companies.