For Your Security, Know Data May Last Forever
The internet is in a tiff about a recent European Union court ruling that forced Google to remove two links from its search results.
According to an editorial at the New York Times, the highest court in the EU, the European Court of Justice, ordered Google to take down links to webpages that concerned information about a Spanish lawyer – specifically, his debts and the forced sale of his home in 1998.
At that time, according to further analysis in an opinion piece at Slate, the La Vanguardia newspaper printed such information as required by law. Recently, the lawyer, Mario Costeja, sought to have the Spanish Data Protection Agency (SDPA) order the newspaper to remove the information because it showed up too frequently when anyone would Google his name. The SDPA did not force La Vanguardia to remove the information because the newspaper initially posted the notices as a mandate of law. Following the high court's ruling this week, though, the SDPA forced Google to remove the links to the newspaper's website.
The recent ruling comes off the heels of previously passed legislation that gives EU citizens the “right to be forgotten”. Essentially, says Slate, a person can seek removal of damaging information “unless the public’s interest in access to the information in question outweighs the privacy interests of the person who is affected”.
The New York Times states that the court's ruling does not provide enough guidance for lower courts in the EU to follow and that such a lack of guidance could lead to the removal of millions of hyperlinks. “Such a purge”, the editorial states, “would leave Europeans less well informed and make it harder for journalists and dissidents to have their voices heard”.
On the other hand, Slate argues, “Privacy allows us to experiment, make mistakes, and start afresh if we mess up. It allows us to reinvent ourselves, or at least maintains the valuable illusion that reinvention is possible”. This is purportedly what Costeja was after when seeking the removal of links to his past.
Perhaps the most important thing for readers here to note, though, is that the information about Costeja is not completely gone. The SDPA did not require the Spanish newspaper to remove its pages; it only told Google that it alone needed to act. The potentially harmful sites at La Vanguardia still exist, and so does Costeja's past. So, too, does the past of anyone reading this post.
Analysis of the issue at NPR reveals that the court defines Google as a “data controller” and is therefore under the thumb of EU data protection laws. So, if someone is an EU citizen, he or she may be able to challenge Google or any other electronic media controller in court. American citizens do not have that right, and they do not have that sort of far-reaching power in court.
Unless laws change, those peoples living in the U.S. should find other ways to protect themselves and keep sensitive information away from prying eyes. Although some information such as Costeja's debt may be placed into public record as part of a mandate, individuals can certainly protect their own social security numbers, credit card numbers, phone numbers, and important account information by remaining vigilant about what they post themselves.
Sure, embarrassing photos posted to Facebook could come back to haunt anyone several years down the line, but that reality is likely less egregious than the damage that immediately sensitive information could cause. Regardless of how apropos or ridiculous the “right to be forgotten” may be, the fact is that, right now, individuals need to protect themselves. Laws may be in place for some to seek and destroy their own pasts, but not everyone has that power, and often the lack of presently existing documents does not translate to a public forgetting one's past.
Image courtesy of MacBeales via Flickr