Life Liberty And Pursued By Google

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). 

Published by

Brian S Hall

Brian S Hall writes about mobile devices, crowdsourced entertainment, and the integration of cars and computers. His work has been published with Macworld, CNBC, Wall Street Journal, ReadWrite and numerous others. Multiple columns have been cited as "must reads" by AllThingsD and Re/Code and he has been blacklisted by some of the top editors in the industry. Brian has been a guest on several radio programs and podcasts.

35 thoughts on “Life Liberty And Pursued By Google”

  1. The European decision was, at source, a bad one in this instance. The fundamental is that release of personal financial data is already covered by the law – be it a 7 year or a 10 year rule, based on territory. The law is there to ensure no prejudice or hardship through unfortunate circumstances once it goes past that timeframe. As such, the directive is clear, unambiguous and should result in any content violating that principle removed, at source, with a directive from a court of law.

    Instead we have the same sort of muddle as practiced by the current UK government and now with this ruling, which was enacted despite advice to the contrary by the courts own expert advisors. Governments should never, ever, delegate censorship to a third party, period. The sole entity are the courts.

    Fuller argument that outlines the pitfalls – and some American history of the same effects – can be found in an excellent post on Medium:

    1. Just to be clear, you are arguing that people have the right to be forgotten but that the Government should be making those decisions, not Google, right?. So for example, given the personal financial data law you mentioned, Google must follow that law (and others like it) in its data gathering, and can’t resort to any “public interest” argument for keeping it.

      1. Just to be explicitly clear, there is no central right to be forgotten, and nor should Google be an arbiter of what they index. There are specific cases, backed by law, where the original content is inaccurate (libel or slander), or where public exposure of a personal financial nature would prejudice the interests of the afflicted (and hence a time limit on public exposure of a personal insolvency event limited to 7 years).

        With that, the exact boundary is set in law and the original content removed at the behest of a legal process – and refusal to do so have legal remedies at law.

        Hence the original complaint by the Spanish gentleman should have been resolved by the court instructing removal of his name from the public record (the newspaper article) in line with the appropriate finance act. To refuse is a fundamental breach of his human rights, as coded by the ECHR.

        Google index the result, even if it’s been redacted in some way.

        Putting any third party outside of a formal legal process into a position of judge and jury, without explicit boundaries set, is a gross injustice. That’s the piece that needs repeeling in this instance.

    2. “Governments should never, ever, delegate censorship to a third party, period.”
      What a refreshingly obvious, and correct, position!

  2. A reality that society must face is that there was a time when things like the personal data in question had a natural life. News reports were folded up, thrown away, and eventually forgotten. The only way to find the information was some dusty archive where, even if catalogued or micro-fiched, was a daunting task to find. Mostly, out of sight, out of mind, if it even still existed.

    That age is gone.

    Google is certainly like Microsoft in that the system is more important than the individual. Thanks for clearing that up for me.


  3. You’ve done us a great service in writing this article. Having also read your conversation with Mr. Wales, I find myself violently agreeing with aspects you both defend. This, my friend, is a paradox, and paradoxes are good, they force a deeper dive into the matter.

    Here’s my two cents…
    The Constitution is a very logically consistent document. Yes, you can “spin” parts in isolation, but when taken as a whole (as it should be) it defines our society. The Constitution errs on the side of liberty. The Constitution is thus valid even in the digital age and the internet.
    When confronted by issues of “digital law”, I always first seek a “real world” analogue to the subject at hand. In this case, what might the law say if I could run around the world at the speed of light and collect information.

    Well, it turns out that in the real world we have classes of information. The Public Domain and Private.
    The Public Domain is truly free information. It is owned by the public. It can be a literary work, an expired patent, you mowing your lawn, etc. Private information is just that, private.

    A serious apparent conflict has already been mentioned here… the persistence of information. Just because I show my face, in public, does not necessarily mean I expect that information to persist forever. The Fourth Amendment protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures”. That is the origin of the right to privacy in the first place. The operative word in the Fourth Amendment is “reasonable”. It should apply when you have a reasonable expectation of privacy, and it should have an expiration date. We humans have fleeting memory (That’s actually a good thing. Would you like to remember every pain you ever had?) If I were to sing the national anthem, off key, at my kids ball game, that need not be remembered forever, unless it was reasonably “memorable” by societal and personal standards.

    This is related to another Google controversy, the WiFi poaching. If were could directly hear radio waves, we would quickly realize that we needed to close the doors and windows when yelling by them. That is, we would have encrypted our signal. It’s not a passers by fault they could hear you. But again, that information should not be persistent either. That’s fleeting information. Preserving persistence is where Google was really wrong.

    Unfortunately, lawyers and legislators will have a field day with this.

  4. “placing algorithms and web bots above humanity.” Unfortunately corporations are people. Uberhumans.

    Originally corporations were limited by duration. No more. Not only are they legally people, today they have effectively more legal rights and live limitlessly. Our frankensteinian monsters. Our new masters.

  5. In terms of public interest, too, “public” will need to be defined. Archaeologists and anthropologists would kill or die (take your pick) for information like this from centuries ago, filling in the blanks of interpretations of what day to day life was like “back then, back there”. I shudder to think that the most valuable, available take on day to day life centuries from now will be construed from the paparazzi of today.


      1. Oh, I would go further and demand source data be removed by appropriate legal request. That, of course, is not Google’s search problem.

        1. This is where I get confused, so google has to remove a link, but anyone searching for the person in a court records archive can still find the info?

          1. Access to a court records archive follows legal procedures. I’m not advocating no access, just legal access.

  6. What I have violent objections to is that the effort to loosen cultural notions and standards of privacy and the expectation thereof is driven purely by the profit motives of mainly two private companies whose management appear to be unaccountable to no one but their own dollar-blinded selves. Especially if you consider the lengths they have gone to downgrade the corporate voting power of their ordinary stockholders.

    Are we really willing to give up our privacy just so that Schmidt, Brin, Page and Zuckerberg can add more billions to the billions they already have?

    1. I share your concerns. In just a year we’ve gone from Google Glass and Internet balloons to drones to satellites, with the FCC and Intelsat (appearing to) approve. What can we do to stop this?

          1. Good point. Google is headed down an odd path. It seems obvious that privacy and security are the next foundations when it comes to computing, and yet Google seems headed in the opposite direction. I suppose Google is just following the money, since they make almost all their money selling ads, but Google is following the wrong path.

  7. “We should not be forced into a technological arms race. It may offer temporary protection but it is not liberty.”
    Well said! (A perfect article in every way.)
    We live in dangerous times. (I never get tired of the truth, even a truth that is horrid.)
    Chomsky says that every Democracy in history has evolved into a Plutocracy. We are well on our way; we may already be there.

      1. Brian, I came late to Chomsky. “Hegemony or Survival” after listening to an interview with NC on the book on the CBC. I immediately bought it and it was a nightmare to read. I thought as a linguist the man could not write a single clear sentence. But I persevered, re-reading paragraphs, sentences, even fragments of sentences over and over until I understood what he was attempting to say.

        Then I had my eureka moment and everything fell into place. I quickly stared form the beginning and I was amazed how clear his words had become. It wasn’t the language that was foreign to me, it was the ideas; concepts about the world (I’m being careful not to tread on toes) that were so foreign to my understanding of, and love for our good neighbour that blinded me. (I continually have to tell my friends not to confuse the people with the state.) The opus had become an easy read, relatively. It has still taken me years to appreciate and understand clearly what he, Said, Zinn and others were up to. I could read and understand but a lot of re-training lay ahead in my studies. Recently I have even come to question the blind disregard I had, and many have, for the gun toting red neck who may actually perceive dangers but in desperation sees the easy solution as the only solution- at this point the heaviest gun is a pea shooter to what the powers have at hand.

        Poverty, real poverty is swelling the ranks of our nations. The life a man on Roosevelt’s minimum wage could produce for his wife and two children in the fifties and early sixties* cannot today be procured by the husband and wife both working full time at minimum wage and the children taking part time, after-school jobs. Something is so wrong and it is getting worse. What life will be like when this decline hits the nightmare called bottom is inconceivable.

        Chomsky opened my eyes but it has taken ten years in study to have the cataracts removed.

        •A man was to be able to support his wife and two children, be able to save for a down payment on a house, paying off in a fair number of years, enjoy a summer camping holiday at a national park and a weekly outing with the family; and when the house was paid off he would start saving his money so upon retirement he and his wife would not be a burden on the state.
        And with prudence, it could be done.

        And I haven’t even addressed your topic of surveillance and privacy but they are all part of the hellish mix.

        namaste and care,

  8. Brian, I enjoy your articles. You’re right and wrong about the First Amendment. It protects Google from the government just like it protects you and Tech.pinions. However, all is not lost. Americans have a right to privacy in some scenarios so there’s hope. The Supreme Court could intervene if a properly prepared case made it that far.

  9. Hmm, what if Apple implemented some kind of ‘Anonymize’ setting in iOS? I don’t know enough about the technical hurdles, but that would be very interesting, if simply buying into the Apple ecosystem secured your privacy. Sure, you can already anonymize your online experience, but it’s way too hard for a normal person. Of course that wouldn’t stop the satellite imaging, unless Apple really does have a working Reality Distortion Field!

  10. Thanks for the excellent article.

    – Knowledge (information) is power.

    – Power corrupts.

    By collectively agreeing to de-value personal information and to allow ownership of it to rest with any party that goes to the effort of collecting it we are giving these entities tremendous corruptive power. People incorrectly refer to this as the “democratization” of information. It’s effectively closer to a type of informational imperialism. He who owns your information, to an increasing degree, owns you.

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