Europe’s Ruling on Google: Much Ado About Nothing

“More than once, I’ve wished my real life had a delete key.” - Harlan Coben, American novelist.

If that sounds familiar, it has now become reality, but with reason for concern. The irony is that nothing has actually changed fundamentally despite all the subsequent hoo-hah. More about that later.

First, it has been two months since the controversial European “right to be forgotten” ruling. Online search giant Google Inc. has now received more than 70,000 take-down requests and started removing results from its search engine late June.

The landmark ruling originated from a court case by Spaniard Mario Costeja González, who had waged a five-year battle to delete a link to a newspaper article on the repossession of his home after he hit financial difficulty in 1998.

The European Court of Justice subsequently ruled in May that anyone living in the European Union and Europeans living outside the region could ask search engines to remove links if they believed the online contents breached their right to privacy and are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed.”

Despite the uproar and headlines in the aftermath, the dirty little secret is that nothing has really changed. What Google has effectively done is to remove results from name search of those names approved to be deleted but only on its European websites. The same results remain on the Google US homepage and all its non-European sites.

Furthermore, Google is only removing the results but not the links. Its European sites may have deleted the results for a search on a specific name but a search for the same name accompanied by other key words may still churn out the same results. A search for “Mario Costeja González repossession home” would now have more results on his inconvenient past than before. So Señor González is everything but forgotten.

Nevertheless the European ruling has spurred global debate. The UK Justice Minister Simon Hughes reportedly said the ruling was “not accurate or helpful” and there is no such thing as a right to “be forgotten” online. He has likened the ruling to the “closing down people’s right to information” in “Communist China.”

In contrast, Hong Kong Privacy Commissioner Allan Chiang last month expressed his interest in extending the ruling to Asia because everyone should have a “second chance in life” despite dirty laundry like criminal convictions, old debts and past bankruptcy records.

Has that blown your socks off? Sure it is good that society gives everyone a second chance in life. Then the stock exchange regulator should delete its regulatory enforcement online records – a blacklist of all violators of listing rules - and brace for a surge in public listing fraud due to incomplete due diligence on listing applicants and subsequent negative impacts on the investing public.

All insolvency and bankruptcy records posted online by relevant authorities should also be removed so everyone could get their bank loans and mortgages swiftly, without problems. Remove also all court and criminal records so women with a past and men with no future could bond happily together. Now isn’t that nice?

There’s a lesson from the heated debates in Hong Kong last year about the proposed Company Law amendments, which included the idea of hiding from the public crucial corporate data, while at the same time quietly studying the introduction of a Freedom of Information Act.

Business owners and company directors have certain public obligations. Say, if a restaurant suddenly closes and owes the staff salaries, corporate records made available to the public would serve a stern reminder to the restaurant owners: They can run but they can’t hide.

These proposed amendments, which failed to materialize, aptly amplify the extent and likely implications of the European ruling on Google. There is indeed a limit on the extent of privacy, as much as anyone would desire.

Google chairman Eric Schmidt has lamented that the European court ruling has struck the wrong balance between the right to be forgotten and right to know. Echoing similar concerns, his partner, Google chief executive Larry Page, warned that the ruling risks strengthening the hand of repressive governments looking to restrict online communications.

The internet was originally designed to exchange raw data between researchers and scientists. It has since grown into a self-contained, self-sustained and self-evolving ecosystem of records, communications, commerce, entertainment, etc.

Any attempt to manually and selectively remove the contents, successful or otherwise, is like playing God – much worse when Google decides what to delete.

Perhaps the following quote aptly sums up:

“Strange how short-sighted being invisible can make you.” - J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series.

Vanson Soo is the founder and director of Vanuscript Consulting, a leading independent risk mitigation practice covering Asia with a special focus on the Greater China region. Blog: http://vansonsoo.com