As an avid search watcher I realize that most of the stuff which interests entertains or enrages me is of only passing interest to the real world, however yesterday Google lost a case at the highest level in the EU courts….and this may impact a whole bunch of the real world. The case stems from the complaint of a Spanish man that Google linked his name to an old story in a spanish newspaper about him having his property auctioned off to pay a tax debt. The man in question argued that it was old news and he shouldn’t be continually punished by his name being linked to this resolved item….the European Court of Justice agreed….you have the right “to be forgotten.” They held that the data may “appear to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant or excessive … in the light of the time that had elapsed.” Essentially anyone resident in the EU can now ask any search engine to erase links to data about them under that definition.
As I look at that definition I have no idea how that ruling could be operated in the real world. Who gets to decide…and on what criteria? I guess it’s all cool and very european but how exactly do we deliver on that requirement? Back in the day when I worked for one of the big search engines and had to deal with this kind of stuff we had a simple hard and fast rule. We never responded or acted upon any request to remove data from our index unless we were requested to do so by a court of competent jurisdiction. The rationale was that we were protected by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act and if we responded to one we would have to respond to them all. We indexed publically available content we did not pass judgement on the veracity or timeliness of that content…if you had a problem with that take it up with the website which published that data, if they deleted it we would inevitably delete the link. This new ruling greases exactly that slippery slope and working out the bugs in this strange new world is going to be a nightmare.
The problem is simple, the moment this ruling goes into effect the search engines are going to be deluged with requests to essentially expunge the permanent online records of potentially millions of people. I have no idea how the engines will respond to those requests but you can be pretty sure that the moment a request doesn’t go the way of choice for the complainer the lawsuits will start to fly. The EU has a higher bar than we do in terms of frivolous lawsuits but it’s going to happen. Also, since the engines are firmly headquartered in the US I can hear the class action lawyers sharpening their pencils to find a way to take a run at them on their home turf.
This ruling puts an unfair and unrealistic burden on the search engines. A much simpler solution would have been to make it the responsibility of the person with the problem to resolve the problem with the original publisher of the information…if it’s an old or no longer relevant story maybe they will remove it….maybe not, but making the search engines responsible for that kind of judgement is impractical. One solution open to them is to simply not index content from those countries or perhaps not display that kind of content on the local versions of their search. That would essentially force anyone in the EU to go to Google.com rather than Google.es/fr/de etc to get search results. Neither solution makes any sense, but if the legal burden of defending all the cases which will spin out of this mess (and Google defends everything all the way in every court) either of those worse case scenarios could well happen.