The Oxymoronic Notion of “Online Privacy”: When Information is Too Private for a Search Engine to Display

Linda Musthaler
By | May 19, 2014

Posted in: Network Security Trends

There was a ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union this week, and it’s causing quite a bit of controversy on the U.S. side of the pond. The ruling has to do with online privacy and the obligation of Internet search engine operators to respect individuals’ privacy by not displaying specific search results if requested to do so. It must be noted that this ruling only pertains to residents of the European Union who are protected by Directive 95/46/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 October 1995. (So all of the people who are claiming this ruling violates First Amendment rights are way off base. The First Amendment does not apply in the EU.)

Much of the press resulting from this case has focused on Google, since it is the search engine company involved in the complaint that ultimately led to the ruling. At the heart of the matter is whether or not Google – or any other search engine operator – can be directed to not display specific results of a search conducted on an individual if that person believes that those results are an unreasonable breach of his personal privacy.

Costeja Gonzalez of Spain lodged a complaint with the Spanish Data Protection Agency against Google Spain and the publisher of a Spanish daily Newspaper. Gonzalez contends that, when a Google search is done on his name, an old and irrelevant article originally published by the newspaper still turns up. The article is from 1998 and states that Gonzalez owes a debt related to real estate. But that was then and this is now. Gonzalez has resolved his debt and he believes that this private matter should no longer pop up in search engine results because it is a private matter that is irrelevant today.

In his complaint, Gonzalez asked that the newspaper be compelled to remove or alter the web pages containing the original story. The court rejected this request on the grounds that the newspaper had published the information in question lawfully.  However, the court found that Google, in “processing” the information and displaying it upon request violates the spirit of the EU’s Data Privacy Directive.

What it comes down to is this: In EU countries, individuals are entitled to some control over information that they consider to be private. Corporations must respect that privacy. In this case, Google and other search engine operators must provide EU residents the means to request that some personal data not be displayed.

This ruling is fanning the flames of “censorship.” Many people are asking where we draw the line of what is too private to an individual to display to the public versus what is merely censoring what the public is allowed to read. The court took this argument into consideration and concluded that it depends on “the nature of the information in question and its sensitivity for the data subject’s private life and on the interest of the public in having that information.” Who would it benefit today to read about Gonzalez’s predicament from 1998?

In general, a private individual in the EU has the right to be “forgotten” and the search engine operator must ensure that the information in question is removed from all links. This ruling may not apply to people who live a “public” life, such as politicians, where the information in question has a bearing on their public persona.

Arguments of censorship be damned—I agree with this court ruling and wish it could extend to the United States. Individuals should have a right to privacy, even if technology has the means to drag up information pertaining to events that happened long ago and are no longer relevant. Too many people in the U.S. have lost respect for what should be private, and I suspect that Solange Knowles and Donald Sterling might agree with me.

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