Revenge Pornography, The Right to be Forgotten and Google – Part 1

On 13th May 2014 The European Union’s Court of Justice ruled that individuals who live within the European Union can request to have links to data about themselves deleted that are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”.  An on-line form has been made available by Google which can be filled in by members of the European Union.

The judgement has been hailed by some as a victory for individual privacy and by others as censorship and damaging to the Web’s ethos of knowledge and sharing.  The first requests to Google have flooded in, with some reports suggesting 7 requests per minute to have links removed and have included requests from a politician wanting scandal links removed, a paedophile and a doctor with negative reviews.

There are many issues surrounding the removing of links from a search engine.  Removing truthful negative comments about a service or person can seriously influence a person’s choice, and may result in someone making the wrong decision. Not so bad when you are choosing a restaurant or deciding what movie to watch, but potentially life changing when choosing a Doctor, or detrimental when deciding who to vote for.  Who will be deciding which results are worth keeping and which are worth deleting?

It almost seems to dishonest to remove links from a search, as if the person searching is not getting all the information.  Google is considering putting an alert on search result pages to indicate when links have been removed.

Is it really possible to be forgotten in this way?  Only the links to data is being removed, not the data itself.  This means that using direct links will still take you to the data and direct links can still be shared via other means, like Facebook, Twitter and good old fashioned email.  This means that information that you may wish to suppress will still be out there, and may still be passed around by others, or sent to people who you would rather did not see it.

So far Google has been the only search engine to act, although others are considering the ruling.  While it is true that Google still hands the vast majority of search requests, if someone uses another search engine the data will still appear.  Google already filters results based on what it thinks you want to see, so already does not give a searcher an accurate picture.  Duck Duck Go doesn’t track your search history and does not filter results, giving what some would call a more accurate search result.

At first glance the right to be forgotten may seem to a victory for those affected by what is known as revenge pornography.  However, taking into consideration all the points mentioned above, this is not so.  While it may be possible to get Google to remove links to pictures and video that you would not want to be mass consumed, that data will still be out there.  It can be shared, it can be sent to your friends, family and employers.  If Google implement an alert informing searchers that links have been deleted, it may just prompt searchers to switch to a different search engine in order to find out the real dirt.

In order to request to be forgotten with Google the data has to exist in the first place, and this is the real issue with revenge pornography.  Without the consent of the person in the images/video, there should be no mass publication and consumption.  When images are taken with the express intention of being shared within a relationship they should not be widely distributed beyond the people involved in the relationship.  No amount of right to be forgotten laws will ever make up for the breach of trust that comes from having consent forcibly taken from you.



2 responses to “Revenge Pornography, The Right to be Forgotten and Google – Part 1

  1. Laws mightn’t make up for the breach of trust, but they provide another possible route to mitigate the ongoing damage.

    Who gets to decide what’s relevant is certainly a problem, but Google already gets to decide what you see and don’t see – That deciding who should be making the judgement is hard is not a reason for us to give up trying to exercise control over our personal data.

    Given that the test is for relevance I think it’s highly unlikely that a court would find a review of a practising doctor to be covered by this precedent! In reality, I think the novelty of this ruling may have been overstated. It has always seemed obvious (to me at least) that data could become irrelevant, and companies should not retain data longer than they needed it for.

    The real novelty seems to me to be in saying that what Google does constitutes the processing of personal data. I think that’s a pretty fair description of what Google does – After all, searching for your name effectively reveals a dossier of information that Google has collected and indexed about you.

    The context of the search has to be taken into account. Google is not a canonical repository of all information that ever existed, it is a profit-making service that is used primarily out of curiosity. The context of searching for “Abby Whitmarsh” in Google is different to the context of a bank searching for the same thing in Experian’s credit checking database or of a school requesting information from the disclosure and barring service. The latter two both have safeguards in place to ensure that the data is relevant to the person who’s asking for it. I can’t credit check you and I can’t obtain your criminal record report because it’s none of my damn business.

  2. abbywhitmarsh

    You are right in everything you say. I especially like you have pointed out the novelty factor of the ruling. Just because it is possible to delete links to your data and just because some people who are trying to do so (probably with out success) does not mean that we now control who sees what about us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s