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The Right To Be Forgotten

'The Right To Be Forgotten' is now a concept being discussed and implemented in the European Union

13Aug

Spain has seen the creation of some of the world’s most important inventions from the laryngoscope to the first pressurised space suit. One thing that we have not come to expect is Spain having a major part to play in data legislation. This may have all changed on May 13 2014.

This is because the much discussed ‘right to be forgotten’ aspect of the internet, and most notably search engines, had a historic court ruling that could have a major impact on international data law.

The ruling dictated that Google must delete entries on Mario Costeja González that refer to an article about an auction notice referring to his repossessed home in 1998, which appeared on the website of a newspaper in Catalonia. The article appeared when his name was entered on the search engine and González had made the case that he should have the right to be forgotten as the article was no longer relevant.

The court ruled in his favour and dictated that Google needed to delete the article from their searches.

Rulings like this will pave the way for others who want to have certain information and stories about them deleted from the searches about them. It will set a precedent for future rulings around similar subjects and the Spanish judges made clear that they believe that this is already within the existing EU data protection directive and that the ‘right to be forgotten’ already exists.

EU data protection is due to be discussed in relation to this exact issue and given that this historic ruling has now set a precedent, it could have major ramifications on those discussions. The ruling essentially means that Google must act as data controller as opposed to a site that simply directs to other data.

Many have claimed a victory to personal privacy, but what cost could this have for Big Data in the long term?

In reality this ruling means more than Google simply taking down two links to a site. It means that entire algorithms will need to be re-written and that ranking systems could be turned on their heads. Given that Google is essentially the index for the internet (broadly speaking) this could confuse everything.

The basis for the wider data community comes from the argument that this is a valid ruling due to the data appearing to be ‘inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive’ but this could be construed in a number of ways. The broad spectrum for these justifications mean that those who do not want information to be published could easily claim to have one of these aspects and any half talented lawyer could find a way to enforce them.

The likelihood is that in the future these kinds of decisions will not be court led, but instead will lay at the door of Google and other search engines. Advocates for data privacy believe this is a positive thing, but in reality this could be anything but.

One of the founding parts of the internet is that it is the ultimate in free speech and platform for Big Data. One of the most popular websites in the world is Wikipedia, millions of people use it every day to find out basic information, but it could never be used as an accurate reference point and should never be quoted as a fountain of accurate knowledge. This is due to the open nature allowing for users to add and amend certain information.

This case leaves the door open for Google to become similar, if people want to have the right to have their information forgotten, it would be easy to use these frameworks to justify it. If a piece of metadata described something as ‘very’ or ‘partial’ the ambiguity of the language could fall into the ‘excessive’ category of the ruling. With a slight change in policy a piece of information could be classified as ’no longer relevant’.

Only the most narrow minded wouldn’t argue that personal data protection isn’t important and that steps need to be taken to improve security, but this ruling is not thinking about the wider ramifications, that of an accurate internet. After all, it is not in dispute that at the time of the story about Mario Costeja González it was accurate and in the public interest, so to take it offline now is quite simply destroying free speech and the opportunity for people to find information online.

Viviane Reding, the EU Justice Commissioner, said ”The ruling confirms the need to bring today's data protection rules from the 'digital stone age' into today's modern computing world,”. I disagree. This ruling shows that law makers are so far in the digital stone age that they believe that an omnipresent Google should be able to control what is and isn’t seen on the net and that the people’s will should be what makes this decision.

The most ironic thing about the case is that before the ruling was made, there were 2 links about Mario Costeja González on Google that referred to a house repossession. After the ruling every major newspaper, data blog and magazines like this one, have picked up on the story and published information about him. Therefore, millions, if not billions, know about it, meaning that a ruling about him being forgotten has done the exact opposite.

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