In this day and age, the Internet has become a common household presence. A large part of our lives, both public and private, are conducted on the Internet. Through the increase in popularity of social media and other online modes of communication, personal information has also become more easily accessible. The wall between one’s social and work life has begun to crumble. In order to adapt to this rapid growth in Internet usage, more and more Internet companies are expanding their markets overseas. Because of this, the European Union is looking to toughen its data privacy laws. In May 2014, the European Court of Justice ruled against Google in a case brought forth by a Spanish man requesting personal information be taken off Google’s servers. Due to this ruling, the precedent was set: Google and other search engine companies are responsible for the content they point to, requiring these companies to comply with data privacy laws. The E.U. wants to grant online users the ability to delete their information from the Internet rather than have their deleted information sent and stored in a database. The latter is what most Internet companies resort to in order to monetize advertisements with the users digital data to gain revenue. However, if Internet companies want to continue doing business within the E.U., they must adhere to the toughened data privacy laws. The problem is, the rules and regulations of data privacy in the European Union are much different than those in the United States. Because the American Constitution provides for freedom of speech, our privacy laws regarding information on the Internet, in print, and other forms of communication are much less stringent than similar laws in Europe. Due to these differences, companies such as Google have come under fire in recent years.
One of the main differences when it comes to regulating online behavior is that Europe allows more rights to the individual – sacrificing some informational rights in order to grant more privacy. The US caters to solutions that are designed to resolve specific problems. In others words, they take on a more ad-hoc approach. They have certain laws that deal with certain regulations. The Bill of Rights deals with the rights to privacy but when it comes to the digital realm, those rights land in a gray area. Since completely erasing data is a laborious process and companies do not want to look further into how far the rights to privacy extend, they have been given a significant amount of freedom when it comes to following data privacy laws. Europe, on the other hand, passed a bill called the Data Protection Directive, which respects all citizens’ private lives.
In an attempt to overcome those differences, an agreement has been created by the Safe Harbor Principles. If a EU citizen makes a claim regarding information on the Internet against an American business, the US will grant permission for the citizen to be heard in a US court. The problem is, few American companies comply with all seven Safe Harbor principles because they would have to then change their business model. Google and Facebook rely very heavily on data collected from consumer’s online behavior and patterns for their revenue. If both companies are forced to comply with the strict privacy laws, they will lose their main base of income.
The right to privacy needs to be framed by two main points to understand our position. First, Google is an American company. Their headquarters are located in Mountain View, California, and the majority of their data centers are in America. They do have data centers in Ireland, and in several other countries, but they are fundamentally an American company. Second, the right to privacy has actually already been in existence for many years. The crucial distinction is that this right has only been able to be exercised via court order from a local or state court in the case of libel, slander, or defamation. Now, private citizens in Europe can request information be removed from search results for much less serious purposes than legal items.
However, the argument posed is an interesting legal battle: does a foreign company need to follow the letter of the law in a different country if it fundamentally alters the company’s product? Before that question can be addressed, an even bigger question must be answered: should Google be the one to determine the legitimacy of these requests? Jules Polonetsky, director of the Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank based in Washington, raised this question eloquently: “But for the Court to outsource to Google complicated case-specific decisions about whether to publish or suppress something is wrong. Requiring Google to be a court of philosopher kings shows a real lack of understanding about how this will play out in reality.”
To dismiss the case as simply an instance of European hyper-regulation would miss the point, and would simplify a complex decision. Google does build incredibly detailed consumer profiles based on information that we willfully supply, but the company doesn’t use sensitive information, such as sexual preferences, names, or other personal details. They still have detailed dossiers on almost anyone that uses their services, but they simply don’t divulge that sensitive information. In Europe, privacy is considered to be more important than freedom of speech and information, while in the United States, the opposite is true. What this court decision reflects is the way different laws in different countries are implemented and enforced. While Google is under legal obligation to follow the directives stated by the ruling, and comply with privacy requests, the very fact that they are the arbitrators of the decision throw the entire process into doubt – they can effectively operate with impunity, rendering the decision essentially toothless. Additionally, the decision sets a dangerous precedent for future information suppressing laws and motions – private citizens can now impact parts of the Internet that they have no legal basis for, essentially shaping information on the Internet into what they want it to be, instead of what it actually is. Actions like these threaten the very architecture behind all of those cute cat articles, and awesome videos, and could destabilize the nature of information shared online.
In light of the recent European Union decision, many people ask why it is even important or why does it matter? While it may be true that everyone lives in a digital age where data is being collected about them constantly, some information can be outdated, wrong, and/or very harmful to individuals. One of the most famous cases is of Mario Costeja González, a Spanish lawyer, who requested Google to remove a link to a journal article from 1998 that described a foreclosure due to debt that González was involved and has since been resolved. The foreclosure was still visible and the first thing that appeared when his name was entered in a search engine and consequently became a deciding factor in many business clients who chose not to work with González. Think also of people who have gone to trial and have been acquitted. Information about suspected child molesters, sexual assaulters, and other crimes are still available online and can have negative consequences on the suspected person’s life.
There are examples of the opposite however, where people request information to be removed that should be available to the public based on the public’s need to know. For example, a Swedish banker who requested information be removed about his multiple felonies and crimes dealing with fraud. If information like that were to be removed, the consequences for potential investors could far outweigh the banker’s right to have the information retracted.
From a global perspective, the court’s decision has caused a large debate over the issue of this right to be forgotten and the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. The press has the right to print what they want within limits and to have information removed easily infringes on that right. There are still many court cases, and appeals going on today debating the controversial issue, but one thing for sure and that is that this topic will not disappear easily.
This is a topic that continues to have prevalence in society. When our group had to decide what our digital artifact would be, we had to keep in mind just how complex it truly is. Before one can understand what the “Right to be Forgotten” simply entails, it is important to understand the intricacies behind the case itself. In other words, we had to find a way to also showcase the background history and all of the events leading up to the case. An example in our timeline would be the mentioning of the Safe Harbor Principles and the detailed walkthrough of the Mario Costeja González case which eventually led to the European Union’s ruling. Our decision to create a timeline was the result of the complexity, history and detailed legal proceedings behind the topic.
We wanted to be able to create an efficient, easy-to-follow artifact that would allow users to go through the case, the events leading up to it, and the preceding events/responses from Google in a step-by-step manner that would allow a more accessible understanding to what the “Right to be Forgotten” truly is and why it is an important when looking at the issue of data privacy. Using TimelineJS, the website that we used to create our artifact, made sense as we dealt with a topic that has a lot of legal history and is ultimately about a specific case within the realm of communications. The aesthetics of TimelineJS were also appealing and the template allowed for our group to be able to work on it at any given time. TimelineJS worked well as we were able to create an interactive means to look at a historical aspect of new media in a chronological manner.
As we continued make progress with our timeline, we also made the decision to try and include infographics, which we created on Piktochart, as well. The TimelineJS template allows for users to add images in addition to text and we felt it would be the best way to include more information and statistics without deviating from the artifact itself. Infographics are a resourceful and fun way to go through facts and statistics and just as with the timeline, they allow for users to better process the complexity of the “right to be forgotten” ruling.
CURIA. European Court of Justice. Web. 1 Dec. 2014.
“Factsheet on the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ ruling (C-131/12).” European Commission. European Commission. Web. 1 Dec. 2014.
“EU Court of Justice Advocate-General Issues Opinion in Google Search Case.” Privacy and Information Security Law Blog. Hunton & Williams, 16 July 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2014.
“The European Union and Internet Data Privacy.” Politics & Policy. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.