Panellists Debate the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ in Germany

October 16, 2014 • Digital News • by

Since the infamous “Right To Be Forgotten” ruling came into effect throughout Europe in May, it has been widely debated. Should search engines, adhering to the EU Court of Justice’s decision, be required to remove links to information deemed “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant”? Who should decide what, exactly, fits into these categories?

“Google has been uncomfortable with this decision for many reasons,” Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, said at a panel hearing in Berlin this week. “The first being that the detail is somewhat ambiguous, and the second is because it means hiring humans, and we don’t know how many humans we have to hire. We don’t know the extent of the problem.”

While the ruling applies to all search engines with a European domain, Google is by far the most affected — it accounts for more than 80 percent of the European search market, and more than 90 percent of that in Germany. As of October, it has received142,000 requests Europe-wide to remove links to more than 490,000 websites.

To help clarify the ruling, Google has appointed an advisory council — which includes Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, one of its most outspoken critics. The council will visit Europe’s major capitals to listen to the views of local experts. It will then publish a report in early 2015.

Schmidt moderated the panel hearing in Berlin. It was a heated discussion, reflecting Germany’s strong emphasis both on personal data protection and remembering history.

“I’m always amazed that in Germany, which is the country with the strongest laws in documenting the past, and responsibility of individuals in the past, it would be really easy for individuals to say, ‘This hurts my reputation and I want this erased from any search engines’ when the information is in fact relevant,” said Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur to the UN Human Rights Commission. “How do we reconcile these different concepts [of privacy and accessing information]?”

Allowing individuals to remove links also “inhibits journalists’ ability to disseminate information freely,” said Matthias Spielkamp, a member of the board of Reporters Without Borders Germany. “The citizens gathering info have their ability inhibited as well.”   Links can be removed from a localized search engine such as without the publisher’s knowledge, unfairly allowing them to discreetly disappear, said Spielkamp.

“Publishers need to have information about that removal,” said Spielkamp. “If they contest it, they should be told the identity of the person requesting it so that they can directly address the issue.”

A private company should not be tasked with deciding which links should be removed, said Wales, especially when there are complex and differing legal systems in each European country to take into account. For example, each country has its own method of disseminating the difference between public and private figures – and the latter can request links about themselves to be taken down.

“I’m finding this as philosophically perplexing,” said Wales. “If we regard Google as non-neutral, in the sense that they apply editorial judgment over their algorithms in order to select the best results, in what way do they have the right to decide what information should be removed?”

Dr. Moritz Karg, a representative from the Hamburg Data Protection Authority, agreed that each European country should judge what links should be taken down based on their own laws and culture, but that the removal should be global.

Dr. Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at Oxford University, urged a humanistic reading of the ruling. “I’ve spoken to individuals who’ve been immensely affected by the wrong kind of information,” he said. “That really me change my views on how far we should go to defend the legal status of information online when human lives are completely disrupted.”

The Right To Be Forgotten is not deleting, but de-listing, stressed Ulf Buermeyer, a judge and constitutional law expert from the Court of Berlin. The information will remain on the web, but simply become harder to find.

“What we’re really talking about,” said Schmidt, “is the right to force Google to take down links under certain circumstances and not about forgetting.”

pic credit: Flikr SLMears


Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Send this to a friend