You’d think major internet companies would have learned their lesson by now when it comes to privacy laws. After being targeted by the FTC for misrepresenting their privacy policies to users (and getting slapped with a $22.5 million fine, the largest penalty of this sort to date) Google should know better, but this week they found themselves back in court, although this time in Spain, facing charges that the onus is on them to remove any content on their search engine that breaches an individual’s privacy. Google, of course, is not about to take this sitting down, and they have fired back by saying that they are not responsible for removing content that is posted by users. What remains to be determined is whether they are merely hosting information (in which case they’re not responsible for user-posted content) or if they are “controllers” of content.
It’s easy to see why Google would fight tooth and nail to avoid a judgment that requires them delete any information that could be considered to breach personal privacy. For one thing, there is so much personal data available online that the Google could spend a fortune on seek-and-destroy missions and never come close to eradicating all the personal info that ends up on their search engines. But there’s also the question of just what qualifies as “personal”, as well as how freedom of information issues fit in. For example, items featured in respectable news publications might not qualify under an individual’s right to privacy. But what if the information is leaked on a blog? What if it appears on a Facebook page? What if the person posted data on a private page but a friend or associate shared it in a more public venue? As you can see, this is a rather slippery slope.
And yet, Spanish authorities seem keen to pursue the matter with Google as their main target. And the whole brouhaha stems from a complaint made by a citizen of Spain who found some information he didn’t like. When he Googled his name, he was confronted by a news article pertaining to a home sale from several years earlier that stated his house was being auctioned due to failure to pay for social security. The man felt that the item should be removed from Google (even though it is part of the public record) and he somehow convinced a Spanish court to rule in his favor on the matter. When Google refused to comply with the ruling and remove the offending item, the case was bumped up to the European Court of Justice.
The problem with this particular case is that the knowledge was made public at some point, which means that it’s availability on Google doesn’t, in fact, breach any privacy laws. Why the Audiencia Nacional of Spain would rule in the complainant’s favor in the first place is therefore suspect. That said, individuals certainly do have a right to some degree of privacy. But the best bet if you’re looking to avoid having someone find unsavory information about you on Google is to avoid posting any private and personal information online in the first place, as well as try to steer clear of committing illegal acts that could become public knowledge. In this era of unparalleled connectivity, with technology growing in leaps and bounds, and policies like section 508 compliance ensuring that anyone can access information, it’s best to assume that any data about you that is public could find its way online. You can blame platforms like Google all you want, but at some point you have to consider personal responsibility.