Why Google feels it should never ‘forget’. And why they’re wrong.

The European court has decided that people have a right to be forgotten, or have certain things forgotten about. This ruling means that Google is no longer allowed to ‘remember’ certain things for us, forever and for everyone.

This morning I read an open letter by David Drummond, Chief Legal Officer at Google. Google, he writes, does not agree with the European court. He claims the difference in opinion is ideological (and practical). But actually (and not surprisingly) it’s economical.

WP_20140714_001Other than the ‘it’s a lot work’ claim, Google’s defense seems to rest on two pillars:

  1. Google feels they should receive an exempt from this ‘right to be forgotten about’, like the press.
  2. Google claims they are defending the universal right to access information versus the right to privacy.

However, both arguments are false. Here’s why:

  1. There is no conflict of universal rights. Google also feels that there is a conflict between ‘a right to privacy’ versus ‘a right to access to information’. That’s quite an arrogant position to take since, in fact, there is no such conflict. Nobody is denied the right to anything if Google does not link to it. If the New York Times writes that you are an idiot, they can keep that on their website forever. Even if Google is no longer allowed to link to that article when someone does a query on your name. In Drummond’s words “it’s like a library that is allowed to keep a book on it’s shelves, but no longer in it’s catalogue.” (It’s funny how Google compares itself to ‘the old media’ at a time when it suits their purposes.)
  2. The press has to put effort into evading someone’s privacy. Google has to put effort in not to invade your privacy. It’s pure economy. If the New York Times wishes to write that you are an idiot, it has to do research, write it down, print it, distribute it. Google has written an algorithm that simply does what it does. A blogger writes you’re an idiot might not get quoted in the New York Times, but it will show up in Google’s search results. Since economy is not holding it back to be nice and their own philosophy is not enough to make extra effort in these cases either, that leaves only legislation to protect society against everything being out in the open forever, regardless of context, relevance, evidence, rebuttal or any other principle that would guide a journalist.
  3. The press can be held accountable for what it writes. Google cannot (or hardly) be held accountable for what it links to. Google does not readily admit that it’s results are curated and that search results are not objective. To get ‘good’ results there Has to be some kind of curation. It’s algorithms need a way to give a score to certain content to be able to decide what type of information someone is searching for. And as far accountability goes: Do you know why newspapers don’t print photo’s of that cute girl next door while she in the shower? Because they will be, justly, prosecuted. Do you know why you can use Google to find a website that shows pictures of cute girls next door under the shower? Because they make money that way and they claim no responsibility for the content they link to unless they are made to take that responsibility by legislation.
  4. You cannot wrap fish in yesterday’s search results. Back to the fact the The New York Times called you an idiot. I bet you already forgot about that. Do you know why that is? Because people don’t read yesterday’s news. So, if you were called ‘an idiot’ just that one time, it’s probably safe to assume that people will forget about it, unless you truly are an idiot in which case such claims would probably be made regularly.
  5. The (professional) press is not nearly the biggest problem. Sure, it’s quite inconvenient if The New York Times has actually called you an idiot. But how many people has this actually happened to? A much bigger problem is social media. Stuff you did as an teenager can haunt you forever. Or the picture a colleague tagged you in. Or a vicious blog where a name was misspelled and now you are suddenly a pervert in the eyes of Google.

It’s a start, but not nearly enough

I can understand that this ruling by the European court is big nuisance to Google. It will certainly cost them a lot of money. But since they are making the bulk of this money out of selling our privacy anyway, I don’t feel too bad about it.

Actually, I don’t even think this ruling goes far enough. I feel Google should be made to really forget private information they have. We were all outraged at what the NSA knows about us. But this does not even compare to what Google (or, for example, Facebook) knows about us. And google actually uses this information to earn money. The European Court ruling only means that Google should not show certain links in their site results. It does not mean that Google itself no longer knows certain information is there, ready to be commercially exploited. I totally believe that Google does not mean to be evil. But sometimes this kinds of things just happen, don’t they? Just because no individual google employee is evil, doesn’t mean that Google itself can’t be. You can only promise to never shoot anyone, if you never have a gun.


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