Many people have a link or two they wish wouldn’t pop up when they Google their own names. They will appreciate the motivation of an audacious ruling the European Court of Justice handed down Monday. But the ruling could easily damage the flow of information on which the Internet depends.
The case was brought by a Spanish lawyer who wanted Google to remove links to articles legally published in 1998 by a newspaper about old tax debts. Spanish authorities agreed with him, but the country’s courts asked European Union jurists for legal guidance. The result was a ruling that is vague and nearly impenetrable, leaving the details for officials, courts and private companies to fill in. But the essential principle is this: The rights of individuals to control information that concerns them “override, as a general rule, the interest of Internet users.”
That logic should be reversed, particularly when public information is at issue. It is dangerous when any government demands that legitimately published material on the public record be obscured, whether to protect individuals’ feelings or the reputations of those in high office. Activists, concerned citizens and all sorts of ordinary people — yes, even journalists — could be denied ready access to information that may seem “irrelevant” to European officials but turns out to be important in public and private life. If there is to be a general principle, it should be to treat search-engine removal requests with extreme caution. Instead, the European court has made it hard for Google to refuse them.
The company may well see a deluge of privacy requests, and it may incur fines if it makes the wrong call. Faced with this equation, the company will have legal and financial incentives to remove links. Google already has received demands from a politician, a doctor and a person convicted of child pornography to remove links to unflattering material, in newspaper articles and on review websites, from search results. The court suggested that there must be a balance between privacy protections and the flow of public information and that public officials would get less deference. But that may not be the practical result.
Even if Google tries to keep as many links in its results as possible, there are a variety of difficult lines that someone will have to draw — very possibly to the detriment of the public. Who, for example, counts as a public figure? An ex-politician? A politician’s children, who may run for office in a few years? A significant shareholder in a factory that environmental activists are investigating? Are lawyers’ past tax debts really irrelevant to their potential clients, as the Spanish case suggests? What about reviews on websites such as Yelp? Should they be harder to find after some time? How much time?
Concerns about privacy are serious. Companies such as Google may have to work harder to allay these concerns, and countries may not want to leave this difficult balancing entirely to the private sector. But as European governments begin to implement this court decision, they should give more weight to the public’s interest in the free flow of information than the judges did.