June 9th, 2014 by Sarah Sluis

What if that pesky search result referencing an unsavory part of your past just didn’t show up anymore? According to a recent ruling by Europe’s highest court, that’s what Google must do if the material is no longer relevant or is outdated. It’s being called “the right to be forgotten.”

Some have identified the origin of this ruling in France’s ‘le droit à l’oubli, which has long assured his right. There’s no better advocate for this right than Jean Valjean in the great Victor Hugo novel Les Misérables. In that 19th-century book, Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread, serves his time, and then finds that all in society shun him for his crime. So he exercises his vigilante ‘droit à l’oubli,’ creating a new identity and becoming a prosperous factory owner. In this version, people are fundamentally good.

In America, we don’t necessarily have such a kind view of people. We have public databases that let you know which sex offenders live in your neighborhood. Companies profit by creating websites filled with former mugshots, and we constantly warn our teenagers that their Facebook accounts will come back to haunt them. While this view assumes little right to privacy, it also contains an optimistic view about the positive effect of free speech, so generously protected in the First Amendment. Except in extreme circumstances, like libel or defamation, information is open and free.

Many are warning that the “right to be forgotten” will degrade the quality of search results for Google. And what about judging who gets to be forgotten? There have already been over 41,000 requests to remove information since the ruling. Google has now said that it will tag search results where there has been a removal, much the way it does when search results include a link removed by the Digital Millennium Act, to draw attention to the ruling. Administering it gets even more complicated than that: Google results in Europe would have to remove the result, while elsewhere in the world, they would remain unchanged. The article itself would never have to be removed.

While at the SAP Sapphire conference, I spoke with a French tech journalist about the subject. His gut feeling was with the European majority decision, while my gut was that information should be open and free. Maybe it does just come down to cultural differences.

If “the right to be forgotten” continues to move forward in Europe, global companies may end up with bifurcated approaches to how they handle the privacy of their users. Differing privacy standards already require accommodations, like having data centers located in the same country as the user information it’s storing. Thanks to the actions of the NSA, no one believes any information is actually private, and they especially don’t believe it’s private in the United States.

The idea of having to individually analyze each request to be forgotten sounds onerous to me, and a process that will create more problems and ambiguities than it will solve. But I do think companies need to take privacy more seriously, and perhaps what happens in Europe will be a global wake-up call about how companies (including Google) should respect their users as they begin to identify and connect their behavior on different devices and channels.

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