For many in the internet industry, May 13, 2014, has already become an infamous day. The European Union Court's ruling in favor of Mario Costeja Gonzalez's "right to be forgotten" has forced the internet search giant to remove search results the court deemed to be infringing on the defendant's right to privacy (the case involved two links to an auction notice on his repossessed home from 1998).
Google responded to the ruling saying it was "disappointed" and now had to "take the time to analyze all the implications." It's fair to assume that there are a lot of people in the internet industry now doing the same.
When a Trickle Becomes a Flood
With "right to be forgotten" requests making their way to Google just hours after the E.U. ruling, many are now speculating on how long it will take the trickle to become a flood. As much as the right to privacy is a huge moral and philosophical question for an internet-dependent and inter-dependent global society, the ruling could well turn out to be as much an operational issue for Google as it struggles to cope with an influx of requests.
Like so many of the issues that bubble to the surface in these perennial right-to-privacy vs. freedom-of-information debates, individual cases will undoubtedly evoke strong emotional reactions from society at large. But the problem for Google could well lie in processing the sheer number of prosaic claims as the floodgates open. Picture armies of twentysomethings just getting onto the career ladder and desperately wanting to get that embarrassing Facebook picture from their university days taken down. Each of these requests will have to be judged on its own merits and with national and European legal precedents in mind, causing some to predict the rise of an industry within an industry.
Of course, giving the go-ahead for Google to make decisions on whether to remove search results on a case-by-case basis could well end up seeing a massive rise in the workload of information commissioners, as the internet giant looks to defer as much of the pain as it can.
There's another problem though, and that's the problem of applying laws that are applicable only in one legal bloc (in this case the E.U.) to the world wide web. The legal framework under which Google operates spans national, European and global levels, meaning a citizen's right to privacy in Spain may be superseded by a citizen's right to a free press in America.
James Ball, writing in the Guardian, points out the highly perverse scenario that could result from this legalistic dichotomy, in which U.S. citizens would in effect be able to access information on E.U. citizens which they themselves were denied from seeing in their native countries. To many, this will conjure up memories of Google's ill-fated complicity in Chinese internet censorship -- a move that led to a PR backlash and the company's retreat out of the Chinese search market entirely.
Social Media as Alternative
Although search engines may still be the primary means we have for navigating and searching the billions of pages of content on the net, they certainly aren't the only way we find information. The rise of social media presents an entirely different set of problems for those wishing to protect an individual's right to be forgotten. With social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the problem of protecting freedoms becomes that much harder as the model is essentially flipped, with billions of users becoming the disseminators and arbitrators of external content.
Whatever the outcome, the implications of the ruling are far from clear, and like so many of these things, the devil may ultimately lie in the detail. The E.U. Court of Justice ruling will undoubtedly anger eurosceptics and freedom of information campaigners alike. But as history has shown us, the internet -- as indexed by Google and its rivals -- has always demonstrated an uncanny ability to adapt or sidestep any outside attempt to curtail or control the practices that take place within its stateless boundaries. Although significant, Tuesday's E.U. Court ruling could well turn out to be a Canute-like gesture.