Google, The Guardian and the “right to deletion”

The Guardian newspaper has published a piece about the evolving practice of compliance with the recent EU ruling on de-indexing of search engine results.  For what it’s worth, my personal view is that de-indexing is a minimum requirement. I also strongly support a right to the enforcement of retention periods for personal data – a legal requirement which has been largely ignored to date.

However, I’m delighted to see mainstream media finally mentioning the fact that there is a public interest test to be applied, here. Implementing the EU “RTBF” ruling may not be simple, but failing to acknowledge the public interest test just dumbs down the debate unnecessarily.
Above all, good selective de-indexing calls for reasoned ethical judgement, not just legal argument, so (donning my “work” hat for just a second) I think ISOC’s recent work on ethical data handling is timely and of increasing relevance.
I can see two areas of complication ahead (well, loads actually, but here are two to be going on with):
1 – national differences concerning the identifiability of court proceedings. In the UK, legal cases are referred to in the public record as “Crown vs John Smith” – in other words, the defendant is named in the “title” by which the case is indexed. In France, I’m told, the *public* record of a legal case does not name the defendant; they are named in the court records, but those are not universally available. What constitutes “the public record”, as indexed by the name of the data subject, may therefore differ substantially across jurisdictions.
2 – the potential for wilful mis-interpretation of what “public interest” means. In the UK, we often hear our delightful gutter press justifying the publication of a particularly intrusive story by saying “yes, it’s sordid and embarrassingly personal, but it’s in the public interest”… when what they really mean is “the public is pruriently interested in the gory details”, not “publication of this story serves the social interests of the general public”. 
To those who complain that selective de-indexing introduces extra cost, I’m afraid my answer is that the extra cost goes with the territory. And that’s not new. For example, in 2010 I heard Google’s then CPO, Alma Whitten, talking about Google’s approach to privacy. She made frequent reference to Google’s mission:
“Organizing the world’s information and making it accessible and useful”
Here’s what I said at the time:

The mission statement of “organising the world’s data…” is a goal which sets Google up to have a lot of stakeholders – and individually or in aggregate, those stakeholders have rights and expectations which deserve to be satisfied. “The world’s data” is not a privacy-neutral concept, and “organising it” is even less privacy-neutral.

The danger of favouring commercial objectives over the other stakeholder rights is that it creates the impression of selling out, rather than shouldering the responsibility of satisfying the non-commercial stakeholders to the appropriate degree. Rudyard Kipling described “Power without responsibility” as “the prerogative of the harlot”. That’s not an alluring brush with which to be tarred…

(This blog, Feb 2010)


There’s still a lot of knee-jerk rhetoric on this topic (“RTBF is dumb/prevents freedom of expression” vs “RTBF is a necessary privacy protection in the hyperconnected world”), but I hope this advisory council is a sign of more measured debate taking place.

I also don’t think RTBF is necessarily fatally flawed just because Google have succeeded in doing it badly a few times so far, just to make a point. When I was a sulky teenager, I am ashamed to admit, I used to wash dishes offensively badly, in the hope of not being asked to do it the next time. I’m more grown up about it now, and I hope Google’s attitude to compliance is maturing, too.