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Can You Erase Information on the Internet?

Belgium King Albert II (2nd L) visits the site of Google Datacenter in Mons, June 16, 2009.

Belgium King Albert II (2nd L) visits the site of Google Datacenter in Mons, June 16, 2009.

The European Court of Justice recently ruled in a case involving the Internet search engine Google. The court ruled that Google must sometimes, on request, remove links to reports containing personal information. The case has led to a public debate about this “right to be forgotten.” Many people are now asking, which is more important: the right to privacy or the freedom of information?

Glenn Gabe is president of G-Squared Interactive. The company has provided digital marketing services to businesses, business leaders and movie stars. He says many people have something in their past that they would like to remove from the Internet.
“They went to prison, right? And maybe 10 years ago everything happened and everything’s still showing up in Google on page one, even though they’ve paid their dues.”

Marc Rotenberg is head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. He agrees with the European Court of Justice that privacy is a basic right.

“You have to consider the ability of individuals to control the dissemination of information about themselves. That is, in many respects, the core of free expression – how we choose to express ourselves or not to say things or do things – that’s, you know, it makes us human.”

In the United States, a number of privacy activists disagree with the European court’s Google ruling. Jules Polonetsky is head of a group called the Future of Privacy Forum. He says the ruling is likely to limit the freedom of information.

“So if someone can tell search engines or news aggregators or maybe bloggers, ‘Sorry, that information tells us about some individual, that individual doesn’t want to be found. You need to take it down,’ the effects really could be dramatic. It breaks the Internet.”
The European Court ordered Google to remove links containing personal information about a Spanish lawyer. He asked the company to take down links to his 1998 tax problems because the information was old and no longer important.

The right to a free press is noted in the United States Constitution, but the right to privacy is suggested only indirectly.

Jules Polonetsky says the right to public information must be protected.

“So it’s a real blow to transparency if legal, public information can be obscured simply because somebody decides that it’s information that they would rather not be available.”

Marc Rotenberg disagrees. He says the European judges did a good job of balancing privacy with press freedom.

“And what the European Court of Justice has done with this decision is to say, in effect, you know, search is an important service, but it has to be done in a way that protects privacy.”

The court ruling will be costly for Google and other search engines in Europe. But it is not expected to affect their U.S. operations any time soon.

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