THE MEDIA HAS BEEN AGOG recently about the curious case of a Spaniard named Costeja Gonzalez who took on almighty Google and won a landmark European Court (EC) ruling in his favor after a legal battle that lasted a little over three years.
MR GONZALEZ, AGED 59, we are informed, is a graphologist who owns a consultancy in non-verbal communication. On googling his own information available on the web he discovered that the search results also brought forth a news item that featured him dating back to January 1998 in La Vanguardia, a newspaper published from Barcelona. The report related to the auction of his house for recovery of tax debts. The case of Mr Gonzalez, simply put is this : the fact that the debts have been paid off makes the information irrelevant and there was no business at all for Google to retain such information in its god-knows-how-large archives. He argued that it was an affront to his dignity and that he retained a “right to forget” which extended also to related information stored in the public domain. The EC ruled in his favor ordering Google to remove his links to his personal history that is currently irrelevant. Google has promptly complied with the request although this judgment would not impact the activities of its search engines outside of Europe. In the aftermath of this judgment Google has received, at the moment of writing, over 40,000 personal requests from all and sundry in Europe seeking deletion of personal information on the basis of the “right to forget” ! What began as a trickle is now a flood for Google to contend with.
ONE IS NOT SO SURE IF THE EC did the right thing. After all, what was retained in Google’s archives was a matter of public record – not a fabrication. Coming to think of it, it would not have mattered to any citizen of Barcelona, let alone the millions who access internet, if a fellow Spaniard had to sell his property to pay taxes. On the other hand, pillion riding on this case, it is entirely possible for individuals to throw a cloak of secrecy over their past conduct that may not necessarily be above board. In his engaging memoirs related to his tenure as U.S. ambassador to India, (The Ambassador’s Journal), the renowned economist, late John Kenneth Galbraith said matter-of-factly that those who argue against the disclosure of historical records are usually associated with something that is not wholly to their credit !
WHILE OF COURSE THERE MUST be adequate safeguards on one’s right to privacy, public interests cannot be compromised to access information which is already in the public domain. As a matter of fact what we are currently unsure of is whether the search results that are thrown at us in any given matter are truly exhaustive. What if there is a material concealment ? What if the owners of search engines are opposed to the disclosure of a particular fact that is not to their liking or business interests ? Herein lies the real danger that is akin to editorial preferences dictated by owners of media networks, including newspapers. On the EC ruling, the Financial Times aptly commented as follows : “Before long, search results will start to resemble official biographies, recording only the facts they want other people to know, and not the remainder of reality….History cannot be hidden from collective memory through a technical fix….If a publisher can keep a story public, Google equally has right to link to it. The fact that discovering it is easier than before, is a bonus, not a flaw..”
POST THE EC RULING, WE NEED now to be wary of selective amnesia !