Google: Do we have the right to know what we know?

urlToday, in my Gmail inbox, I found a rather interesting letter from Google itself.  The title read (in Italian, by the way.  I live in Italy), “Right to be forgotten vs Right of being informed.”

“A recent ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union found that European law gives people the right to ask search engines like Google to remove results for queries that include their name.”

The letter described how the decision was based on the public’s request to the European Union, calling for a review concerning personal rights, particularly demanding the right to have personal content removed, ranging from serious criminal records to name-­calling and embarrassing pictures.

“For each of these requests,” Google says, “We’re required to weigh, on a case­-by­-case basis, an individual’s right to be forgotten with the public’s right to know.”

To complete this they have gathered a Council of Experts to start investigations on the matter that should, ideally by the end of the year, yield some results for definition, guidelines, and policy. Additionally, they are asking European citizens to express their opinions through a web form.

googleEUI think there are two ways to look at this.  On one hand, this law seems to undermine the foundations of what we perceived as the primary scope of a search engine (true, honest, public results), supporting our right to know the facts. On the other hand, while it’s vital to keep people informed, it’s also necessary to keep in mind the feelings and life of a single individual who might be faced with the challenge of dealing with pressing public opinions, mockery, and so on.

The problem, however, lies in the fine line between: what is too harmful to be shared, and what should be spread for the sake of information?

Extreme situations, like bullying, have always existed, and history has shown the act of public humiliation as a form of punishment. Can a society’s concern and/or communal judgement trump that of privacy and personal well-being? In my opinion, social networking has amplified the results of noteworthy moments, transforming transgressions into eternally-accessible descriptors, defining a person’s character and historical value.

This is why the European Court of Justice’s decision is so interesting, and important. Should a victim be reminded of an atrocity every time his or her name is searched via Google? Is it that person’s right to have such information removed? Or, once and event is published, it cannot be unpublished?

Conversely, is Google, and other various search engines, only a sort of giant GPS/Global Record Keeper with no personal or partial ties to the search results? Is it only the blind-connector piece, connecting a person to the information he or she desires?  Would adding the responsibility of “censoring” information change the purpose of a true search engine?

In a sense, I do not envy Google’s Council, and their task to dissect and define such a complicated matter.  The careful balance of personal versus community right will be tricky, at best. And, given the global nature of Google, this issue will eventually touch other cultures, other countries, and governments whose internal laws might be challenged by with the outcome of this change.

If you care about this issue, and have a point of view you care to share — please do so!  You can comment below, or give your voice to the cause by sending feedback to the European Google council itself (this may only be available to Europeans at this time).

Lara Greco

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