Judges on Europe's highest court may have thought they were striking a blow for individual privacy when they ruled Tuesday that search engines could be ordered to stop linking to sensitive or older information about people online, even if it had been lawfully published. Instead, they were creating an entitlement to censor history, or at least to make parts of the public record harder to find.
The case began when a Spanish lawyer, Mario Costeja Gonzalez, did a Google search on his own name and found links to embarrassing legal notices that a Barcelona newspaper had published in 1998 announcing a real estate auction to pay his social security debts. After Spain's data protection agency ruled that the newspaper could leave the pages online but Google couldn't link to them, Google appealed to the European Court of Justice. Its ruling, which is not subject to appeal, held that individual privacy rights "override, as a general rule," the public's interest in data, particularly if the presentation is "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive." It doesn't matter where the search engine does its data-crunching so long as it has an "establishment" within the European Union. As a result, the ruling sets the stage for people to conceal legally published information from the entire world.
The Internet certainly has changed the privacy equation in many ways, both good and bad. Many formerly obscure pieces of personal information collected by public agencies are now easy to find online, even by people who aren't searching specifically for them. Utterances and images never fade once they are uploaded. And search engines present personal information in a different, potentially misleading context, ranking tidbits of data according to secret algorithms.
But one of the many flaws in the ruling is that it unfairly focuses on Google and other search engines, which aren't the real problem here. They're not repositories for the data that people might want to remove; they are just remarkably efficient tools for finding things online. And whether a piece of information is relevant or valuable is in the eyes of the beholder. One of the beauties of the Internet, after all, is the extent to which it gives anyone with a browser access to troves of knowledge that had previously been locked in government offices, publishers' morgues and other storage vaults of the analog era.
Costeja Gonzalez may not want the 1998 dispute included in his online biography, but it may very well be significant to people researching debtors' auctions during that period. And if Google stops indexing those legal notices, the links would be lost to every researcher. It's one thing to make sure people can protect their privacy by forcing sites to remove sensitive personal information, or to provide Internet users a way to erase material they themselves have posted. And policymakers can debate whether information collected by the government should have an online expiration date. But the Court of Justice's ruling would create an overly broad right for individuals to airbrush the historical record, and that just invites abuse by people who have something to hide.