Cyber schizophrenia
    Category: Column By : James Kallman Read : 999 Date : Monday, March 02, 2015 - 19:12:17

    It’s not hard to develop a schizophrenic attitude towards the Internet, as while we all love the opportunities for enhancing our image, negative stories raise our ire. This is especially true when a search engine leads one straight to the offending item. In its May 2014 ruling, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) affirmed that—under certain conditions—individuals do have the right to ask search engines to remove links to personal information about them where the information is inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive for the purposes of data processing.

    However, the Court also ruled that this is no absolute right and must be balanced against other rights such as freedom of expression and of the media. Thus requests should be subject to a case-by-case assessment that considers the type of information and strikes a balance between its sensitivity in regard to the person’s private life and the interest of the public in having access to such information. Moreover, this balance may well be tilted by the role the person plays in society, as the ruling should not attempt to make prominent persons less prominent any more than make criminals less criminal.

    Google, against whom the original case in Spain was brought, has since complied with some 40% of 720,000 links-removal requests, claiming the remaining 60% generally relate to professional rather than private life. It has not, however, removed the links from its other search engines based outside the EU, arguing that this is solely an EU law and hence not applicable in other legal domains.

    This was challenged when French-based lawyer Dan Shefet sued Google’s French subsidiary for the failure of its parent company to also remove links to defamatory material from its global search engine domains, claiming they were harmful to his reputation as an international lawyer. The Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance agreed and last September ordered the subsidiary to pay fines of 1,000 per day until such time as the links were universally removed.

    Shefet has certainly gained international exposure by his actions, but as yet Google has reportedly neither paid the fines nor removed the links. It has, however, set up a committee to examine the whole question of how the company should handle Europe’s right-to-be-forgotten standard, and its report due in mid-February should make for interesting reading.

    While one can to some degree sympathize with the ECJ ruling, its implementation can only take place within the boundaries of the European Union. To attempt to do otherwise would be the neocolonial enforcement of one’s ideas on others. This is why the French court’s decision sets a dangerous precedent, for it presumes to decide what information on the Internet should be made available to the rest of the world. Moreover, it also reverses current legal thinking in holding a subsidiary liable for the actions of its parent company.    

    If accepted universally, such actions could provide less scrupulous countries with the tools to impose state censorship on a massive scale. This would defeat the very ideals of the Internet, which are to provide an open flow of information across borders, be these physical or political. While on occasions this may lead to cyber schizophrenia, there is more to be gained from open access to information than an accumulation of skeletons in closets.