Thursday, May 15, 2014

EU ruling that may change history

The EU has ruled that Google and other search engines must delete references and links to data connected to an individual in what has been hailed as a victory for people wanting to be forgotten on the Internet.

However the ruling made by a Spanish court could potentially have far reaching consequences which could ultimately lead to history being rewritten or deleted.

Information in the pre-Internet age

Before the advent of the Internet finding information was down to one's skills in seeking out books at local libraries or articles buried in newspapers stored in underground vaults. Even then one might need an understanding of the Dewey Decimal System and other indexing systems. While sometimes difficult to find, most back editions of a newspapers were readily available and books and encyclopaedias could be thumbed through. Most libraries would stock telephone directories of a given area and by cross referencing the information with that of the electoral register, a journalist or anyone else could dig up all sorts of data about any given individual. With a few pounds in pocket one could even get copies of birth, marriage or death certificates from registry offices, thus creating a detailed dossier on the background of a person one was interested in.

But nowadays digging up such information is less easy and may become all the more difficult. Libraries have streamlined their reference sections. Some no longer stock the electoral register, telephone directories have been discarded long ago, and the encyclopaedias have almost been consigned to history. Indeed the Encyclopaedia Britannica has itself decided to stop printing books in favour of online or digital editions in 2012 [Telegraph].

Disadvantages of online data

There is an advantage of online data. It can be sought out quickly with the aid of computers or search tools. Information in stories or on databases can be updated and mistakes corrected, whilst a printed version without the advantage of foresight cannot. But there are disadvantages too. Pages on the Internet can disappear, be deleted or simply be buried so deeply in the mountain of available information as to become impossible to find.

Whilst some organisations such as the Internet Archive have attempted to preserve some webpages from the past, there are vast amounts of information disappearing everyday that were once easily accessible and in the public domain.

Deletion of online resources

Of course much of this information could be considered junk. When Yahoo shut down Geocities, a popular blogging and webhosting platform many were outraged, especially those who had created pages on the online space. While many pages were undoubtedly the personal ramblings of individuals other pages were in depth explorations into cultural history, conspiracy theories and other musings.

Newspapers and media organisations have also deleted online content. For newspapers the information may still exist in hard copy, buried in the dark recesses of a national library, but for some organisations they have only ever been online. For example many articles published by Fox News at the time of 9/11 are now longer available. Indeed many links older than a few years may be deleted.

This situation is bad in that vast swathes of history, and how it was reported at the time, have been consigned to the digital dustbin.

Repercussions of EU ruling

However the problem could become much worse after one Mario Costeja González sought to have information about him removed from the Internet. The Spanish lawyer complained that entering his name in a Google Search led to the display of legal notices dating back to 1998 and published in the online version of La Vanguardia that detailed his debts and the forced sale of his property [].

The court ruled in his favour and Google must now remove links which lead to the references about González' financial past.

While some have hailed the decision a victory, there are others who believe it could create further problems. The information González sought to have removed was not libellous or defamatory, it was merely historical, even if somewhat uncomfortable for the man in question.

Shooting the messenger

Indeed the ruling does not require the paper to destroy such records or articles, only that Google should not index and deliver search results. But herein lies the problem. Whilst Google, Bing and Yahoo might be obliged to comply, other search engines not doing business in Europe may simply ignore the ruling. Duck Duck Go, Russia's Yandex and China's Baidu could in theory still throw up links to the Spanish lawyer's financial past.

Even where search engines comply it has been likened to the removal of the name of a book within a library's database while the book itself remains on the shelf. Furthermore others have pointed out that Google is only doing what it and other search engines do, that of indexing the Internet and making it searchable. Meanwhile the party that was 'guilty' of producing the offending item is left alone.

Google is nonetheless reeling with at least 1,000 take-down requests having been made according to the Telegraph.

Setting precedents

There is another worrying aspect to the EU ruling. In essence a precedent has been set allowing someone to have data removed from the Internet they don't like, albeit by the fact it becomes unsearchable. While González is one individual whom few may have any real interest [until now], there may be many individuals and organisations who would like to have their data removed, feeling it too is "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant".

Moving down this road could further lead the world into a dystopia envisaged by George Orwell. In his book 1984 he wrote of Memory Holes, a mechanism which allowed the alteration or disappearance of inconvenient or embarrassing documents, photographs, transcripts, or other records, such as from a web site or other archive, particularly as part of an attempt to give the impression that something never happened. Of course Orwell did not foresee the creation of the Internet, but its existence allows the removal of unwanted information much easier.

The scenario also conjures up Ray Bradbury's dark vision of the future from Fahrenheit 451 where all books are illegal and burned. With libraries disappearing and all information shifting to the ephemeral virtual space that is the Internet, there'll be no need to actually ban the books. Nonetheless the Index on Censorship claimed the ruling was a violation of "the fundamental principles of freedom of expression" and "akin to marching into a library and forcing it to pulp books." [IBTimes / Reason] Others have suggested it would be like destroying other indexing systems like Palmers Index which sought to catalogue and cross reference the back editions of The Times from 1790 to 1905 [CBC].

Censorship and Intranets

Another of those opposing the deletion of data is Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales who believes it is a slippery slope that could erode the Internet and lead to greater censorship. Describing the move as "astonishing" Wales said it was "one of the most wide-sweeping internet censorship rulings that I've ever seen" [BBC / IBTimes].

Meanwhile in the Guardian, journalist James Ball described the ruling as "either an eerie parallel with China's domestic censorship of search results, or a huge incentive for tech investment to get the hell out of Europe". Indeed China regularly deletes information deemed unfitting for its 'harmonious society'. Blog posts, tweets, and even news articles disappear into a memory hole. Indeed some information is never published in the first place, thus many in China are ignorant of the Tiananmen Massacre, the great famine in which millions died during the Great Leap Forward, or the destruction of history during the Cultural Revolution.

In addition China also blocks and censors any foreign website that doesn't toe the line. Thus YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, the New York Times and Bloomberg are just some of many platforms which cannot be accessed in the Middle Kingdom.

But what of this ruling. Would companies decide to shift out of Europe in order to avoid having to comply with a mountain of similar complaints. And if they did would such sites be blocked in a China like censorship sweep. Following the revelations over NSA snooping Germany's Angela Merkel has herself talked of a separate European Internet [FT].

Whatever happens as the issue unfurls, it will be painful and confusing for all concerned [NYT / Business Week]


There is an irony in all this for Mario González. His attempt to delete history and wipe away the past has instead rekindled it. More has now been written about González' past financial history than was ever mentioned previously. Le Vangaudia, can still display the webpage concerned, and while Google may not index it , the link will doubtlessly be posted in many places on the Internet. Indeed the Guardian reprinted the offending article itself on its own webpage.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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