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Google Must Allow U.S. Users To Be Forgotten

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Thu, Jun 26, 2014 at 10:52 am

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Google Must Allow U.S. Users To Be Forgotten

Google today began removing some search results in Europe under the recently court-upheld “right to be forgotten.”  The Internet giant should offer U.S. users the same basic right to privacy.

In May the European Court of Justice ruled that a person has the right to request the removal of search engine links to information that is inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant, or excessive. The removal isn’t automatic if requested.  There needs to be a balance between the individual’s privacy and public’s right to know in making a decision to remove a link.

The information itself is not taken down from the Internet; only the link from a person’s name in a search result is removed if Google agrees with the request.  If Google disagrees, a person can appeal to his country’s data protection authority.

In what I consider an outrageous disregard for the privacy rights of its U.S. users, Google is only letting people be forgotten on its European sites like Google.ie, Google.co.uk, Google.fr and Google.de.

At the bottom of a European search results page for a person’s name Google offers this statement: ‘Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe.”  The Internet giant also offers a link explaining the policy.

Despite what some people have claimed, the right to be forgotten isn’t about censorship.  It brings the real benefit of privacy by obscurity into the Digital Age.

Here’s what I mean:  Before the Internet if I did something foolish when I was young and foolish — and I probably did –  there might well be a public record of what happened. Over time, as I aged, people tended to forget whatever embarrassing things I did in my youth.  I would be judged mostly based on my current circumstances, not on information no longer relevant.  If someone were highly motivated, they could go back into paper files and folders and dig up my past.  Usually this required effort and motivation.  As a reporter,  for instance, this sort of deep digging was routine for me with, say, candidates for public office.  This reality  that our youthful indiscretions and embarrassments slipped from the general public’s consciousness  is privacy by obscurity.

The Digital Age has ended that. Everything — all my digital footprints — is instantly available with a few clicks on a computer or taps on a mobile device.

Now, the right to be forgotten will restores the balance in Europe that is provided with privacy by obscurity.  The right simply allows a European to identify links that are no longer relevant and ask for their removal.  It won’t always happen and when it doesn’t there will be an appeal process.

Americans deserve the same right. Google, which claims to care about privacy,  should be ashamed that it is not treating people on both sides of the Atlantic the same way.

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This post was written by:

John M. Simpson

- who has written 361 posts on Inside Google.

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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