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Aug 7 / Geoffrey Nathan

Privacy Becomes the Center of Controversies on Both Sides of the Atlantic

Over the past couple of weeks a number of important privacy-related legal decisions have hit the IT policy landscape, and I thought I’d take time today to talk about one of them. The other will be a topic next week.

First, the European Court of Justice ruled that Google must stop linking to search results that are ‘inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant’ if someone requests it. It all revolves around someone who wanted Google to stop returning a newspaper article from the late nineties about his house being repossessed in the eighties.

Since then Google has received tens of thousands of requests to ‘be forgotten’, and is establishing a system to decide how to respond to those requests. It also has a warning (only on the European versions of its pages) that not all results are being displayed if that item has been ‘censored’.

As one might imagine, this has caused a firestorm. Numerous commentators have argued that this will simply permit politicians and other public figures to hide their shady pasts. Although the official court decision said ‘journalistic work may not be touched’ Google has delinked a number of blog posts on various European online newspapers, and Wikipedia itself has received at least fifty notices from Google that articles have been removed from search results. As a result Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia blasted the decision as a violation of the human right to have access to history.

An additional weird, but understandable, twist is that the ruling applies to Google, but only to European Google, so it has no effect on searches conducted from elsewhere in the world. Even more interesting, the publishers of the actual articles do not have to delete them–it’s simply that Google must not report them in a search. So the offending material is still on the web, and other search engines (such as https://duckduckgo.com/, which does not track you and does not note where you are), and computers whose IP addresses are concealed (such as with ‘Incognito Browsing’) will still find the relevant information.

In addition, it is likely that this result will trigger what has come to be known as the Streisand Effect–loudly attempting to hide something leads to it being even more visible. This is certainly the case for the Spanish guy who started the whole story (you can find his name yourself, as well as all the information he was trying to suppress, with very simple search tools).

On Monday I’ll tell you about a different case, where a US judge attacked European’s right to privacy in a totally different way.

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