Secrets are Lies v The Right to be Forgotten

“Don’t be evil”, Google slogan

“Evil is what Sergey (Brin) says is evil.” Google CEO Eric Schmidt quoted in Wired.

Secrets come in all shapes and sizes. Some are well intentioned, others not. Some relate to state security; others to highly sensitive commercial secrets. Some are personal, petty and irrelevant. Some mean the difference between life and death. Some keep secrets to evade the law. Some keep secrets to avoid having “their dirty linen washing in public”. What can be said for sure is that secrets do not come neatly packaged in standard size and kit. They are as varied and as different as any organic matter that exists on earth.

Regardless of the context – and when it suits its business interests – Google is more than happy to push the view that complete transparency is “good” and secrecy “evil”. No where is this more evident than with Google’s continued obfuscation, obstruction and resistance to EU on-line privacy regulation. Each and everyone of us has elements of our past which we would rather not share with the global on-line community. Dirty linen. Washed in public. An age old saying which seems particularly pertinent in a modern technological context.

Supposing, by way of example, you were to google your name and up pops an image of you taken ten years ago looking very drunk and very naked. It has been posted by an unknown individual onto an amateur photography site where it is being shared and highly rated for being so ridiculous. The photo is grainy and thus inadequate, it is of no relevance and it is of no public interest what so ever. You are not a politician. You have no criminal record. You’re just an embarrassed individual with a reputation you’d like to uphold.

In May the ECJ passed a land-mark ruling. Google, which has 90% of the EU market share for on-line searches along with all other search engines, will be responsible for managing requests to remove links on individuals that are either inadequate or irrelevant or no longer relevant. The onus is on on-line search companies, not you the individual or the photography site that posted the picture, to determine on a case-by-case basis whether an individual’s request is either inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant. Following the May ruling Google must delete links to your photo. Quite a tricky, costly, administrative exercise. One which no sane company would wish to engage in. You may be able to build a Googleplex campus in California, you may have lofty ideas about the shape of things to come, but you sure as hell do not want to be stranded with the administrative head-ache of deciding individual requests for deletion.

Given that Google’s legal redress in Europe has now been exhausted they have decided to take the fight to the court of public opinion by arguing that the ECJ ruling is a deliberate attack on our freedom of expression. The Google PR interpretation of the right to be forgotten can best be described as SECRETS ARE LIES and the only beneficiaries of such a judgement are criminals, paedos and dodgy politicians. Eric Schmidt, Google Executive Chairman told share-holders in May that “A simple way of understanding what happened here is that you have a collision between a right to be forgotten and a right to know.”

A fight between freedom of expression and censorship sounds a lot more convincing than the more mundane truth that fabulously rich search engine companies do not want to bear the administrative costs of this ruling.

The fact is that each and everyone of us – to varying degrees – have elements of our past we would rather not share with the world. That does not make each and everyone of us criminals, liars and cheats. It makes us individuals who are vulnerable to having our reputations compromised on the flimsiest of past indiscretions.

The ruling still stands though. Google knows this. More worryingly for Google the ruling strengthens, not weakens, the proposed EU on-line data protection regulation, of which the right to be forgotten, is a key feature.

Brin and Page, no doubt brilliant mathematicians, technicians and coders may have over-stepped the mark when all those years ago, back in their proverbial garage, they dreamed that Google could define the concept of evil. That these two gentlemen are ambitious is beyond dispute. That they control 90% of the market for on-line searches is a testament to the standard of excellence Google provides. Wading into the subjective world of good and evil, two moral concepts that for better or worse, defy the logic of binary coding, was perhaps a step too far even for these ambitious intellecutally brilliant individuals.

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