As published in City A.M.
“There is no such thing as bad publicity,” Google must be thinking as the internet firm is once again in the headlines. This time, it stands accused of removing an article, written by the BBC’s economics editor Robert Peston, from its search results. Google is either being uncharacteristically clumsy in its attempts to comply with EU law, or is deliberately making itself look ridiculous to highlight the flaws in the court’s approach.
This issue has risen from the recent “right to be forgotten” decision of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). This allows individuals to require search engines to remove links to their information if that information is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”. Google has been quick to comply with the ECJ’s decision. It has already received over 50,000 requests to “forget” data, and has hired an “army of paralegals” to sift through the requests.
But Peston was understandably perturbed by what appears to be censorship of his journalism. The article itself, which has probably been read more times since this story broke than in the seven years since it was first penned, is an insightful piece on the removal of Stan O’Neal from the board of Merrill Lynch at the height of the financial crisis. It is difficult to see how it is not in the public interest for this information to be available.
As Peston rightly pointed out, the decision by Google to remove the article is suspiciously clumsy. The ECJ expressly provided for public interest to overrule the right to be forgotten. By making indefensible high-profile decisions like this one, Google is trying to portray itself as the victim. But it is Google’s own previous refusal to compromise that has brought us to this point.
The “right to be forgotten” decision is important – it is a significant rebalancing of power back to the public. I have long argued that individual privacy rights have been neglected by governments with an incomplete understanding of the modern world. In recent times, we have increasingly seen our personal data being used without our consent, and for purposes that we do not agree with. The decision is fundamentally altering our understanding of private data, and any step towards giving individuals property rights over their personal data is a good thing.
Google has been vocal in its opposition to the ruling, but this is a company with a long history of trampling over the public’s privacy. Its core business is making profits from the use of our personal data. This decision is forcing the company to revisit the underlying philosophies of its businesses.
We have already seen a change of stance from Google, and it has pledged to engage with Europe on privacy concerns. The truth is the ECJ decision is an awkward and insufficiently precise piece of law, and is proving to be cumbersome and unwieldy in application. It will probably not stand for long.
But by forcing Google and other service providers to the table, it will facilitate a new deal under which individuals have property rights over their own identity, and business can pursue its legitimate interests. This will allow us to achieve a proper balance between freedom of expression and an individual’s right to privacy.