Life Liberty And Pursued By Google

on June 16, 2014

If we do not have a right to be forgotten on the Internet then we have no right to privacy. None. We cannot allow Google and Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales to strip us of this basic protection.

It appears, however, that is their intent.

Last month, in a freedom-fighting shot heard round the Internet, the European Court of Justice ruled people have a “right to be forgotten.” The Court stated every private citizen within 32 European Union nations can demand Google (and other search engines) remove links about them which are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant.”

This decision is freedom.

Let’s say you defaulted on a car loan 20 years ago, your first year out of college. Should that be the first thing that pops up under your name when anyone, anywhere, anytime, maybe forever, types your name into Google? Must you forever be branded?

Thanks to the EU’s ruling, you can now have the link removed. The link — not the data, not the facts, not the source. The facts have not been changed. The document Google’s link has pointed to, a local newspaper article, say, or possibly an old legal filing, still remain in existence. But, you can no longer be unduly punished by Google’s unforgiving, unforgetting algorithms.

We need a “right to be forgotten” in the United States!

Indeed, while credit agencies must — by law — wipe clear their data on us from many years ago, the far larger, far richer, far more encircling Google faces no such restrictions. A small, local newspaper may have written a blurb about students unable to pay back their student loans in a timely manner. In 1998. And your name was included. Google enables the world to instantly know this about you, years and even decades later.

You’ve long since made good, of course. You satisfied your debts. Yet every future employer that types your name into Google sees that information, possibly at the very top of the page. Fair? Of course not. Must we private citizens be so powerless against Big Data collections? Technology is supposed to be empowering — and not just for a giant corporation, but for individuals, all of us. That’s the promise of technology, after all.

Google thinks different.

Soon after the ruling, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt stated “the balance that was struck [between a person’s right to be forgotten and the public’s right to know] was wrong.”

Curiously, it is Mr. Schmidt who is leading the company’s efforts to implement the court’s decision. Following the court’s ruling, Google appointed an “advisory board,” because, as the company stated:

“The court’s ruling requires Google to make difficult judgments about an individual’s right to be forgotten and the public’s right to know. We’re creating an expert advisory committee to take a thorough look at these issues.” 

Spoiler alert: Google’s “advisory committee” is stocked with ringers. These include Google chairman Eric Schmidt, Google’s lead attorney, David Drummond, and Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales.

I confess I don’t know the views of all seven members on the Google-appointed committee. But I do know some. Eric Schmidt, for example, has offered numerous public statements on the issue of privacy, often going up to, maybe even beyond the creepy line. Here’s just one example:

“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Google’s chief lawyer David Drummond called the Court’s decision “disappointing”and stating it “went too far.”

Your laws, Europe, are impeding Google’s grand plans.

However, it is Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, and a rather curious selection to Google’s advisory committee, who has waged the most vigorous and public opposition to this ruling. I interviewed Jimmy Wales for TechHive. He told me the court’s decision is censorship, plain and simple.

It absolutely is censorship and no one serious has any doubts about that at all. As a simple test, ask yourself whether this would be possible in the U.S. without a repeal or modification of the First Amendment—it would not.

Jimmy Wales is profoundly wrong.

The First Amendment was instituted to protect individuals. Yes, it is a right against the government, not private business. Still, his suggestion that empowering citizens to limit the lasting personal harm from Google’s algorithms is the equivalent of repealing the First Amendment is disheartening.

We have laws that limit pornography. We have laws that limit how long credit bureaus may keep their data. We have laws regarding copyright and content distribution. Our society benefits from these. Empowering individuals to have non-relevant or no longer relevant links about them removed from Google will not require a repeal or modification of our first amendment. Indeed, knowing search engines can’t hold onto or link to our private data forever may foster more speech and greater diversity.

Wales, however, takes the hard line stance, conferring all rights to Google while leaving individuals relatively powerless:

Google goes to an enormous amount of effort to write software to express editorial judgment about which links are displayed—that’s freedom of expression.  

What we may not do, if we are respecting freedom of expression, is use the force of law to suppress a link to content that is legally published and true.  

In Wales’ world, a single slip up, captured by Google’s globe-spanning servers, and you are forever branded.

The police must (now) receive a search warrant before tracking our movements by cell phone or cell tower. Credit agencies can’t hold onto tax lien data after a decade. Google, however, is timeless — no matter how damaging. 

It gets worse.

Till now, we’ve had the power to decide whether to hand over our privacy or not. Our private data, our searches, our online purchases, the web pages we viewed were recorded by Google, that data then analyzed and sold, often in aggregated form. In return, we received various benefits such as free search and maps. Perhaps we got a raw deal, handing over far too much in exchange for meager gain. But, it was a deal nonetheless, a choice we all made. Now however, even this lopsided quid pro quo is vanishing. We are being captured without consent, and without ever striking a bargain.

I can avoid I can route around Google fiber. I can attempt to escape Google’s servers and Google’s relentless bots, though it’s nearly impossible. How can I avoid Google satellitesGoogle balloons, or Google drones? These can spot us, soon identify us, link that data to time and geolocation, upload it to their servers, in near-real time, then let anyone, anywhere, forever, know the moment I simply walked outside my front door.

And when I got into my car.

And when I got out.

And where I drove and how fast and where I stopped.

An entire dossier available on me of nearly every moment of every day, available to anyone, anywhere, simply because I stepped off my front porch. You, as well.

Yet Wales and company offer us no power to limit this.

Understand, I am not opposed to these truly amazing technologies, far from it. They are connecting people across the world, enabling the sharing of content, changing views of life and geography. They are empowering. But they cannot be allowed to strip us of our liberty.

When Google purchased Skybox Imaging, a satellite company, Skybox stated:

We’ve built and launched the world’s smallest high­-resolution imaging satellite, which collects beautiful and useful images and video every day.

Amen. This type of bold vision, and the execution that made it real, are laudable. Such efforts can aid humanity — not just in America, of course, but all around the world. Mapping our world has, despite many awful instances, helped people advance. This does not, however, give Google — or any company or group of companies — the legal right to capture and sell me, especially when I offered no consent in any form.

The FCC’s decision to allow commercial drone videography can absolutely make our lives better. But Google should not have the right to allow its drones to record me, my time and place, then make that information available to all (or to whom it chooses) without my explicit and ongoing consent, and without a means to have the data stripped from its servers.

This is basic.

Yet, per Jimmy Wales, I have no legal right to say no, no legal right to demand Google erase that data.

How utterly disempowering.

It gets even worse.

The EU Court said Google can refuse to remove non-relevant and harmful links if they remain in the public interest. Google seized on this opening:

The company can reject a takedown request if it thinks the information is in the “public interest” – a definition that will include information about private individuals that others have a valid interest in knowing.

By leveraging this rather amorphous “public interest” baseline, I fear Google will attempt to achieve its global business ends by pitting me against you. This cannot be tolerated. 

Rights must rest with the individual, not a company, not a “public.”

It may be in the “public interest” to know when I, a private citizen, walk outside my door, or when I step into a public restroom, or when I do not drive my Prius at optimum MPG. Such data could aid public transit systems, for example, or help the government craft better driver training standards. But an individual has had his privacy stolen, has been disempowered. Rights that do not rest with the individual are no rights at all.

Am I to be made powerless? Are you?

Why must we have no legal recourse, none at all, to have harmful and unnecessary information about us removed? That Google would appoint people so opposed to this basic freedom of privacy is deeply troubling.

Many in the tech community argue for a technological solution. A technological cloaking device, for example, that (virtually) hides us from Google, Facebook, drones, bots, satellites and the like.


We should not be forced into a technological arms race. It may offer temporary protection but it is not liberty.

Google’s vision is clear, their disparate businesses all possessing a common idea: to connect everything and everyone. That is astoundingly audacious. No one else is attempting this. Google are to be praised for their daring, their mission, their execution. They have earned billions of dollars over the years and much respect. But Google has no right to deny us our privacy. They have no right to take from us. We must not allow this.

Jimmy Wales is wrong — and his view of the future is a limiting one, disempowering people, placing algorithms and web bots above humanity. Don’t let this happen.


Note: I have asked Google for comment on the ruling and asked them also to comment on how they selected members of the advisory committee. Should they respond, I will update this column.  

Note: My discussions with Jimmy Wales are here and here (via Twitter).