Will Only the Rich Benefit From the EU’s New Right to Purge Google?

Danny O’Brien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation isn’t happy about the new EU court decision that requires Google to delete links to information that people find troublesome:

When a newspaper publishes a news item, it appears online….Attempting to limit the propagation of that information by applying scattergun censorship will simply temporarily distort one part of the collective record in favor of those who can take the time and money to selectively edit away their own online blemishes….Meanwhile, a new market is created for mining and organizing accurate public data out of the reach of the European authorities. The record of the major search engines will be distorted, just as it was by Scientology and the Chinese government. Outside of Europe’s reach, rogue sites will collect the real information, and be more accurate than the compliant search services.

There are two interesting points here. First, that the EU ruling will mostly benefit the rich, who can afford to hire people to police their image and make legal demands to have links deleted. Second, that this will prompt the rise of “rogue” search engines that can bill themselves as uncensored.

The first point depends almost entirely on just how broad the court ruling turns out to be, and right now that’s deeply unclear. In the case at hand, the court ruled that Google had to delete a link because it was now “irrelevant,” a standard that’s fuzzy to say the least. Could I demand that links to dumb articles I wrote for my campus newspaper a few decades ago be deleted? How about a failed business from the 90s? Or bad student evaluations on an anonymous website? The court provided very little guidance on this, so only time will tell how broadly this gets interpreted. Either way, though, it’s almost certainly true that, in practice, only the fairly affluent will be able to take advantage of it.

The second point is also something to keep track of. The court ruling specifically targeted search engines as a way of exerting EU control even when the source information itself is held on a site outside of EU jurisdiction. But will this work? Creating a search engine isn’t all that difficult. It’s hard to create one as good as Google, but it’s not hard to create one that’s pretty good. And if that search engine is located solely in the United States and does no business in Europe, then the court’s ruling doesn’t affect it. However, residents of Europe would still have access to it unless the EU gets outrageously heavy-handed and tries to firewall unapproved sites, much as China does. That seems unlikely.

Now, it’s true that your average searcher would still get the censored Google results. At the same time, if a few uncensored sites pop up in response to this court ruling, it wouldn’t be all that hard for anyone who cares to use them. What’s more, the very act of filing a demand to delete a link would itself be a public record, and might produce more bad PR than the original search results ever did.

I remain opposed to this ruling, which seems vague, overbroad, and just plain bad public policy. But just how bad it is depends a lot on how things unfold over the next few years. Stay tuned.