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Can you delete your Online History?

28 · MAY ·2014

Oscar Wilde once stated “no man is rich enough to buy back his past” and as more and more data is being stored and shared online this is becoming increasingly true. However, a controversial privacy case at the European Court of Justice on 13th of May could change the future of online privacy. For the first time ever, search engine giant Google was required to remove a result from their Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) due to privacy issues. The decision has taken the online community by storm, with many now asking: is it truly possible to delete your online history?

Mario Costeja González vs. Google

Even though the European Court of Justice (ECJ) only announced that Google should remove certain web pages from their SERPs this month, the actual case has been going on for over four years. In 2010 Mario Costeja González asked Google Spain to remove a webpage from their SERPs which pointed to a 1998 newspaper report discussing Mr González’s social security debts. Since then, Mr González’s debts have been repaid, however when searching on Google Spain he found that the issue was permanently attached to his name and his reputation. After spending years campaigning to clear his name, the ECJ ruled that Google should remove the page from their SERPs and added that in future they would be required to removed results that "appear to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purpose for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed."

The Internet Reacts

Since the ECJ ruled that Google now has to appease any reasonable request for results about a private individual to be removed they have received thousands of letters. Some are quite reasonable, such as one from a businessman who requested for negative and unfounded reviews to be removed as they are harming his business, however others are more sinister. For example, it is claimed that some criminals are asking for their names to be removed from certain results, including those convicted of cyber stalking and other serious crimes. Google is naturally against the ECJ’s ruling, with Google Chairman Ed Schmidt saying it’s "a collision between the right to be forgotten and the right to know. From Google's perspective, that's a balance. Google believes, having looked at the decision which is binding, that the balance that was struck was wrong."

The Issue of Censorship

Along with Net Neutrality, many people are concerned with Internet censorship, as they believe it infringes upon Open Internet policies. Furthermore, it may mean that those who do have a certain amount of money may soon be able to buy back their pasts by having Google remove certain posts about them (however it is important to note that Google is not currently being paid for removing results). Hiding certain information about individuals also means that influential members of society such as politicians may be able to hide parts of their pasts which would harm their campaigns, ultimately ‘tricking’ people into thinking they’re something they’re not. One of the biggest benefits of the Internet is that it can provide unbiased information at a touch of a button, but under the new ruling this could be jeopardised.

What does this mean for Businesses?

At the moment, the ECJ’s ruling only affects individuals and not businesses, however many are arguing that businesses are ultimately just groups of individuals. Furthermore, many businesses are now based in countries across the globe, meaning that while the ECJ’s ruling may have an effect on Google’s European search engine sites, in other countries such as America and China it is practically powerless. Therefore, it is important for businesses to understand that any information that they or their employees make public will be nigh-impossible to delete once it is on the Internet and in reach of Google. It is also not clear to what extent Google will remove results, such as whether they will disassociate a name from a result or remove the offending result from the SERPs altogether. Businesses are therefore still required to be vigilant when it comes to any form of information about them being published online.

The increasing uptake and availability of high speed broadband makes it easier for companies and individuals to share information online at the click of a button, however getting this information back is not as easy. This is why even with the ECJ’s recent ruling it is still prudent for businesses and individuals to be careful when it comes to sharing private internal information online.

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Posted by Sanita Karra