The Netherland’s data protection agency said Google is facing a massive fine of up to 15 million euros ($18.5 million) if the search giant fails to end what the agency argues is a violation of Internet users’ privacy. The Dutch Data Protection Authority (DPA) says Google is failing to uphold basic European tenets of privacy for citizens through browsing history and location information that targets users with customized ads.
The Battle for Privacy
Europe, unlike the United States, pushed forward with efforts to stem the growing power of the search giant this year. The DPA gave the company through February to handle the request and change its policies on collecting data from web users.
The current fight stems from privacy guidelines introduced in 2012. In the intervening two years, France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Spain and now the Netherlands put Google under investigation for failing to meet those new standards.
“This has been ongoing since 2012 and we hope our patience will no longer be tested,” said Jacob Kohnstamm, chairman of the Dutch DPA.
At issue is Google’s data crawling from searches online, via email and third-party tracking, or “cookies,” and customized advertising, which European nations are hoping to curtail.
“This combining occurs without Google adequately informing the users in advance and without the company asking for consent. This is in breach of the law,” the DPA said.
In order to comply with the new regulations, Google must tell users of actions that target personal data and inform users of how the search giant plans on using the information. Google must also garner consent from users to target ads. Google shies away from such actions, arguing that is an infringement on freedom of speech and the ability to search all information available.
Right to be Forgotten
This is not the only battle between Google and European nations. Earlier this year, the European Union passed the “Right to be Forgotten” directive, allowing users to request certain site are removed from search results. The “Right to be Forgotten” ruling from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) took effect over the summer and the backlash over links removed sparked controversy over Internet searches.
At the initial center of the fight with Europe, Google delisted many suspect web pages, including an article from “The Guardian.” The article is now back online, as Google faced a lot of backlash from perceived manipulation of the requests.
Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond criticized the ruling but said they would continue to follow it and take down links as part of the “right to be forgotten.”
“When it comes to determining what’s in the public interest, we’re taking into account a number of factors,” Drummond wrote, also saying they weren’t taking down pages relating to politicians, celebrities, or other public figures.
This supports the ECJ ruling that states the ruling should only affect private citizens and Drummond claimed they’d be checking sourcing before removing links as well.
He also argued Google plans to look at whether a certain page removal request “involves political speech; questions of professional conduct that might be relevant to consumers; the involvement of criminal convictions that are not yet ‘spent’; and if the information is being published by a government. But these will always be difficult and debatable judgments.”
Europe vs. Google Could Determine the Future of the Internet
Privacy concerns and online security are firmly at the center of technology and Internet discussions. The battle between Europe and Google should be one of the most important Internet issues to watch going forward. For Google and its supporters, Europe is infringing on freedom of speech vis-à-vis the Internet, but regulators and the European Court see things differently and are continuing to put pressure on the world’s largest tech companies.
Many experts and tech workers are watching to see how the top brass at Google deal with these crises. With so much of our private data stored electronically, ensuring who controls and makes policy decisions is the new battlefront. For Google, customized ads and search data are vital to their revenue stream, but for citizens whose information is used and published online, more strict regulation is desirable. In Europe, the future of the Internet is playing out, in courtrooms and in public opinion.
Image by Mark Knol/Flickr
Navigating the thin line between the public’s right to know and an individual’s right to privacy has always been tricky business, and the recent “Right To Be Forgotten” ruling by a European court hasn’t made it any clearer. In early May, the court ordered Google to remove search results deemed “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” as per a private individual’s request.
With such a game-changing decision on the books, it’s important to look at the pros and cons of this controversial ruling and its impact on the availability and transparency of information.
“Right To Be Forgotten” on Par With Censorship
From the perspective that people searching for information should have the right to access everything that has, at one time or another, been posted about a specific topic, company or individual, the ruling seems tantamount to censorship. And censorship controlled by individuals who may have motivation to hide bad behaviors of the past that may be relevant to current searches.
For example, a dental hygienist who was investigated for selling prescriptions multiple times might feel she has good reason to want that information removed from search results, as it could bias potential employers and others who find that information. However, for future employers and the general public’s safety, one could argue that such information remains relevant no matter how old it is and how sorry the offender now is.
An additional caveat to the ruling is the impact on newspapers and other media outlets whose publications may be inadvertently censored because links to articles may no longer be listed in search results. Regardless of a media outlet’s scruples or reputation, if a link containing an individual’s name is requested for removal and approved, that publication has now had its contents repressed by an entity other than its editor or publisher. This could be considered to compromise the First Amendment of the US Constitution that guarantees freedom of the press.
Ruling Allows Individuals to Protect Their Image
No doubt we all have an unflattering picture, cruel comment, or perhaps even an inaccurate statement or two about us living somewhere on the Internet – and once it’s out there, there’s no getting it back. But this ruling changes that.
For teenagers who post every moment and random thought without consideration of the long-term impact, the “Right to Be Forgotten” might seem like a godsend once those teens have grown up and want to join the adult world without a chronicle of their teenage malaise following them forever.
It seems unfortunate that information posted online can stick to you indefinitely, and this ruling definitely opens the door for change when it comes to cleaning up a messy online presence after an individual has changed course and no longer wants to be perceived a certain way.
No Easy Answer
Taking away the right of people to have access to all the information in order to make an informed decision is a slippery slope. While parents or overly enthusiastic online posters may feel like rejoicing at the opportunity to wipe away embarrassing or potentially damaging parts of the past, the larger implications are frightening.
Google was under heavy scrutiny for slanting search results in order to cater to the most popular views and opinions. By adding additional ways to influence the results in a Google search, the problem of providing unbiased information to help an individual reach a conclusion is exacerbated.
In the information age it is inconceivable that “Right to Be Forgotten” is even an option. Public interest should be held above a private individual’s embarrassment. And in the case of inaccurate or libelous information, there are already avenues in place for an individual to clear their name and help correct public perceptions.
Perhaps the silver lining is that this ruling only applies to Google. Individuals seeking access to information that has been de-listed by Google can use other search engines. However, with more than three million searches per day, as of September 2013, it seems obvious that unless Google users switch search engines, they are likely to encounter an ever-shrinking world view.
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Photo: Carlos Luna/Flickr