US v Europe - a cultural gap on the right to be forgotten

Shadow falls over a banner saying "Google Deutschland"

The reverberations from this week's landmark European Court of Justice ruling on the right to be forgotten continue to be felt.

Legions of lawyers are still trying to work out what it will mean for the search engines, and for millions of EU citizens who may want to force them to remove links to their past online lives. And the cultural divide between Europe and the US appears wider than ever, with two very different views of how we should live our lives online.

On the one hand there is what you might call the web utopian view, held by the US internet giants and some in Europe who look to Silicon Valley for inspiration. This sees the ECJ ruling as unworkable, illiberal and just out of touch.

The Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who divides his time between London and the US, explains to me why something like it could never happen across the Atlantic because of the constitutional guarantee of free speech: "This is not a debate the United States is even capable of entering into. You'd have to repeal the First Amendment - and that's like a religious artefact - so that's never going to happen."

Start Quote

Max Mosley

The internet shouldn't regurgitate things for ever”

End Quote Max Mosley

He tells me this is not necessarily a new cultural gap but one that is being made evident for the first time. "In the past if you were in Germany you were never worried that some encyclopedia website based in the United States was going to name you as a murderer after you got out of jail because that was inconceivable. Today that can happen, so the cultural gap that was always there about the regulation of speech is becoming more visible."

But in Europe many politicians and regulators and some - though by no means all - privacy campaigners have welcomed the ruling. Mr Wales' point about local laws - which used to mean old convictions simply disappeared from the record after a certain time - is one of the reasons for that support.

Europeans who have been told that the internet is basically ungovernable - and if it does have guiding principles then they come from the land of the free - are expressing some satisfaction that court has refused to believe that.

Max Mosley, who has fought privacy battles with tabloid newspapers and Google over pictures of a sadomasochistic orgy, expresses particular satisfaction that the European Court decided the search firm was subject to local laws. When I talked to him as he emerged from a radio studio he was also exercised about the rehabilitation of offenders: "A principle accepted in most civilised countries. The internet shouldn't regurgitate things for ever."

And he refuses to accept the idea that the online world just cannot be regulated. "The internet is so new that the law hasn't caught up with it but eventually it'll be regulated like every other aspect of society and that's quite right."

So a battle between two views of freedom - the US belief that free speech trumps everything, and the European view that individuals should have some control over what the world knows about them. But there is something else in play here, a growing unease about the power wielded by what are nearly always US web giants over our lives.

Mario Costeja Gonzalez on mobile phone Mario Costeja Gonzalez, the man who prompted this week's EU ruling against Google

Google, Facebook, Twitter and other firms that store and use vast banks of data about Europeans have all sought to deny responsibility for how people use and share that information. They also maintain that they are not media firms - which in Europe face strict regulation - but mere technology platforms enabling better communication. In Google's case that stance has come to bite it.

Media firms like the Spanish newspaper site at the heart of this test case, haven't been told to remove content. It is the "data controllers" - the search engines - which are in the court's sights.

Now there are obvious questions about the practicality of getting Google to decide which of billions of links to millions of European names should or should not be removed. The temptation for the company will be to automatically agree to all requests, rather than to set up a vast quasi-judicial bureaucracy to decide what is justified and what is not, and that could have a chilling effect on free expression.

But European web users, who have been told for so long that companies based in Silicon Valley cannot be told what to do in the UK or France or Germany, may feel a smidgen of satisfaction about the howls of outrage coming from across the Atlantic.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    "Except of course that Google Inc is not doing business in this country"

    But thats the whole point of the ruling and what has got Google spinning like mad - see nearly all of the media stories since.
    Their search results are what they sell, thats their business, and they do that wherever they can get paying customers; the location of their server farms is irrelevant for this particular issue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 243.

    So what's wrong with being gay? Nothing. Now. Not in this country. Fifty years ago, you'd have gone to jail for it.

    In Austria at the start of the 20th century there was nothing wrong with being Jewish. 40 years later it carried the death penalty.

    People have the right to a certain level of privacy, because who knows what the future may bring?

  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    "The reason there is a fuss is because a US company has been told they are subject to our laws when doing business in our country "

    Except of course that Google Inc is not doing business in this country when you type in a web search, nor when it pushes the result to your computer. It depends on where the servers which processed the search are

    See my post 232 for some explanation

  • rate this

    Comment number 241.

    All these headlines about dodgy folk demanding Google delete stuff about them - spin. Only if they get a court order, and Google can appeal that, with the usual Streisand effect.
    The reason there is a fuss is because a US company has been told they are subject to our laws when doing business in our country (in contrast to the US where they consider their laws apply to all companies worldwide).

  • rate this

    Comment number 240.

    Censorship here we come.

    You can "search" the BBC news site does this now mean news or forum articles to be removed if I find it does not make me out to be a saint.

  • rate this

    Comment number 239.

    230. Mike
    so your webpage would then be indexed and would thus show as another google link to be removed (the very point of this article)...."

    And what about pages which link to my page? And pages which link to those, and pages which link to those? How far back do you go? What about other search engines which link to my page, do those get 'blocked' as well?

    It's just not workable

  • rate this

    Comment number 238.

    210. FrTed

    "I am gay.."

    So what's wrong with being gay?

    It should have been your choice to come out, not someone else's, but there's no reason to feel as if you have anything to hide. What kind of people would come up to someone they don't know and say, "I hear you're gay?"

    Personally, I'd tell them to ____ off. You don't need their approval.

  • rate this

    Comment number 237.

    234. John R
    Not saying I agree with the ruling but they got the right company."

    No they didn't. Google can remove a link to a certain page from their index, but they can't reasonably remove all links to all pages which might link to that page.

    The correct solution is to remove it from the actual hosting site, then any links to it automatically stop working.

  • rate this

    Comment number 236.

    233.Perivale Elvis
    Allows the rich and powerful with plenty of stuff to be ashamed about to hide behind this legislation too.
    EU law prevents public figures being able to hide their indiscretions, unless it's a genuine breach of privacy that an everyday Joe can expect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 235.

    This is a major step backwards for Europe, it seems the EU wants to return to the days when 'shooting the messenger' made people feel better. Google is merely giving free, unfettered access to information that was actually posted by others. Why does this misguided ruling not seem to apply in any way to the party(ies) who posted the information?

  • rate this

    Comment number 234.

    Lot of people banging on about how little the EU knows about the Web (not Internet!). Have you forgotten that most website content is accessed via search engine links, and not directly? Not saying I agree with the ruling but they got the right company.

  • rate this

    Comment number 233.

    This ruling makes no sense to me. It may enable some people with stuff they would like to forget about in a slightly better position but allows the rich and powerful with plenty of stuff to be ashamed about to hide behind this legislation too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 232.

    I have read the case. It is clearly legally defective. Essentially it has decided that because Google has a subsidiary in Spain that means that all Google companies anywhere in the world are subject to EU law.

    That goes against nearly 150 years of consistent law about companies.

    So the obvious question should be why did the court come to that decision.

  • rate this

    Comment number 231.

    Paul - the right to be forgotten doesn't just cover one link to one published instance of the information; it covers all links to all published instances of the information so the Google link to your summary on your page would also need to be removed (thought I would clarify my previous statement further)

  • rate this

    Comment number 230.

    Paul - so your webpage would then be indexed and would thus show as another google link to be removed (the very point of this article)....

  • rate this

    Comment number 229.

    @181: "As for hurting their chances of employment - it should."

    Does this mean that if I manage to link who you are in real life to your posts on here then I would have grounds to discriminate against you when hiring because I would know you are hard-of-thinking?

  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    148. 0racle
    131.Badon1 - yes the information is still there but it can't be Googled, that's the whole point. We would be unable to find the original item unless we just happened to be on the exact site."

    Not quite - you could find it through links from other sites. So, if I decide to create a link to the Spanish newspaper and summarise the articles on there, Google can index my page - hey presto

  • rate this

    Comment number 227.

    Forgetting how ridiculously Luddite this is, It's just deception and censorship. Sure, there may be a few people who would benefit from having their history unsearchable. But the vast majority of people won't bother and those that do probably have something that they shouldn't be able to hide.

    Corporations, politicians, criminals will be those who benefit which explains exactly why it's happened!

  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    It won't affect Google very much at all, because the Information Commissioner (paid from our taxes) will be the arbiter.

    So it will happen like this, in UK:
    - Complaints fill in form in Google with URL to remove
    - Google rejects every request (automatically)
    - Some people appeal to the Data Protection Registrar
    - After the clanging bureaucracy has its say, Google will nearly always implement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    187. The Realist
    I would confidently bet that 97% of google users won't even know what means let alone get around it. Google's business would be decimated. "

    There'd probably be riots..

    No more Gmail, no more Google Maps, Google Drive, Google Docs, no more Google Apps (which lots of EU businesses use). Many EU businesses would probably go bust because they're too reliant on Google applications


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