OPINION: Attack of the Googlebots

In an earlier life at a previous publication I would occasionally be asked by members of the public to remove their personal information from the newspaper’s website archive.

Usually they were criminals angered because their name had been published from provincial court. But one man I remember clearly, and with sadness.

The 20-something had run afoul of the law years earlier for a relatively minor property offence. He’d made his apologies, paid his fine and moved on.

At least he tried to. He showed me, in desperation, how an online search of his name always brought up the old offence.

“No one will hire me,” he said. “Am I stuck with this the rest of my life?”

The sad fact is, once Google’s web robots latch on to your personal information – good or bad – there’s little you or a news organization can do about it. The data lingers on somewhere in the cloud, seemingly forever.

So I cheered when a European court ruled last week that Google must amend some of its search results at the request of ordinary people when they show links to outdated, irrelevant information.

Observers called it an important test of the “right to be forgotten,” and to my mind, The Court of Justice of the European Union got it right.

The judges said Google and other search engines do have control of individuals’ private information, given that they sometimes compile and present links to it in a systematic way, the Associated Press reported.

The court said people have a right to some control over their private data, especially if they aren’t public figures. If they want irrelevant or wrong personal information about themselves “forgotten” from search engine results, they have the right to request it – even if the information was legally published.

Google argued it doesn’t control personal data, that it just offers links to information already available on the net. Not surprisingly the Internet giant, which has 90% of the search engine market and an estimated one billion users worldwide, doesn’t want to play the role of censor.

But the court said search engine operators do bear some responsibility. It depends on the nature of the information, it’s impact on a person’s private life, and the interest of the public in having that information.

The European court ruling has little impact here. But it’s probably inevitable that North American courts will hear from individuals whose reputations are damaged by Google’s mindless web crawling robots.

Hopefully, when that day comes, our courts will also find that citizens, even in the Information Age, have a “right to be forgotten.”

 – George Mathewson