Google suffered a blow to their aim of owning each last morsel of information on the internet when the EU ruled that the tech behemoth must remove any personal data held on people that is deemed "inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant". The decision means that individuals will be able to request that the search engine removes links about them which provide information that they do not want to be known – ensuring their "right to be forgotten".
Google and free speech activists have reacted with outrage, claiming that this severely reduces freedom of speech, as well as allowing internet users to edit their history and restructure the digital footprint that they've left on the online world.
The court's decision was made after a Spanish man requested that notice of his house being repossessed was removed from a major news website: he'd paid the debts, so why was the information relevant anymore? The ruling means that anybody who searches their name and discovers personal information that they don't like can ask the host site to remove it – and if they refuse, people can take it before the courts.
But does the concept of making destroying online information contradict the initial ethos for Tim Berners–Lee's WWW? Are we moving towards an internet not only governed, monitored and censored by governments but also moderated by citizens? Earlier this year, Berners-Lee wrote in WIRED: "Censorship on the web and the blocking of certain websites, directly attacks free expression and the freedom to be informed. Censorship violates free speech in obvious ways."
The complication comes in the battle between two legitimate rights: privacy and free speech. Both are crucial to the genetic make-up of the web. It's these two ends of the spectrum that make the online world intimidating but also beautiful – an ever-widening universe of information. Moving somewhere in the middle will limit the potential for the truest discussion possible, but also make it safer for individuals who didn't ask to be born into a world where a news article on a personal misdemeanour long past is available on tap.
That news article about the time you drove into a supermarket while off your face? Ask for it to be taken down. What about the time you dressed up as a pumpkin for Halloween and cried in the street and it went viral? Get that photo off the web. The time that you wrote an article about how you think oral sex is political? Get rid of it.
International free speech watchdog Index On Censorship was appalled by the EU's decision. In a statement, the organisation says that "it allows individuals to complain to search engines about information they do not like with no legal oversight. This is akin to marching into a library and forcing it to pulp books."
Right now, the decision needs the consent of the 28 EU governments before it can become law. Google, Facebook and other internet companies have campaigned against the law, concerned not only about the invasion of internet freedom, but also the costs incurred by dealing with relentless requests for the removal of information.
Of course, it seems strange to defend Google, the tech gentrifiers with a go-get–em attitude (quite literally). In 2013 they introduced a service to their search engine that means that your Google profile (including your face, name and personal details) could be monetized by the tech giant and seen online by other consumers, unless you opted out. (You can do that here.) Is that free speech? No, it's just an invasion of your privacy for cash.
But being able to edit the history of real-life events is an entirely different matter – it's a step towards the internet being for the individual benefit rather than the global community, a place where we're scared of who we were because we don't know who's watching.
Follow Thomas Gorton on Twitter here @angstromhoot
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