In his 2013 novel, The Circle, Dave Eggers
articulates a dystopian vision of a world without privacy. In the book, a
Google-esque tech giant consolidates the personal information of the world's
Internet users, using search history and video technology to record every
keystroke, every concept, every breathing moment in the Digital Age. This
Orwellian commitment to transparency is epitomized in the company's credo: "ALL
THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN."
While Egger's tyrannical alternative future is a bit
hyperbolic, Europe isn't taking any chances. On Tuesday, the Court of Justice
of the European Union (ECJ) ruled that Internet companies must remove certain
personal information from searches upon the request of an individual. The
decision upheld the
complaint of a Spanish man who objected to the Google search results for his
name, which revealed a newspaper story about the foreclosure of his home in
In ruling that Google and other Internet companies can be
required to remove data that are "irrelevant" to a given user, the court
handed a major victory for privacy activists who argue that people should have
the right to be "forgotten" online, or remove traces of their online identity.
But how companies will determine what is and is not relevant remains to be seen.
Some experts question whether the ECJ decision hands
Internet companies inappropriate power to determine the difference between
appropriate erasure and censorship. "Having search engines conduct a public
interest test is problematic, not least because they will be challenged to
carry out the kind of thorough assessments that can done by courts and other
said Orla Lynskey, a lecturer in law at the London School of Economics. "I
expect the default action by search engines will be to take down information in
response to complaints," she said.
The organization Index on Censorship criticized the
decision, saying it "violates the fundamental principles of freedom of
expression." The ruling, the group said, "allows individuals to complain
to search engines about information they do not like with no legal oversight."
But for privacy activists, the decision is momentous, as it
provides a significant check against wanton data retention. ‘'This sounds like
a landmark judgment,'' said Peter Hustinx, a top European Union official for
data protection. "The court is saying that Google isn't just selling adverts in
Europe, but is providing content along with those services. If you are a
regular citizen, it gives you a remedy anywhere in Europe for you to ask
companies to take down content connected to you.''
While the court's ruling
reverses a preliminary 2013 recommendation that backed Google in the case,
it's not without precedent. "The European Union, and its member states, have
already taken a much harder line with Google," says Darren Hayes, a professor
at Pace University's Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information
Systems. "A number of recent ECJ decisions are limiting the company's ability
to collect less information about their consumers."
While Edward Snowden's revelations about NSA data collection
injected newfound urgency into the movement to ensure online privacy, EU courts
and lawmakers have long been on the vanguard of protecting individuals against
digital behemoths. Taken together, European policymakers have shown themselves
far more willing to support consumer privacy than their counterparts in
Washington. In 2009, the EU passed legislation
requiring Internet companies to gain consent before installing most cookies on
users' browsers, limiting the user data sites can retain and share. In May
2013, a German federal court
ruled that Google must prevent certain defamatory autocompletes on their
search engine. If the company is notified that libelous words are included next
a searched name, Google is compelled to block them.
A few months later, a data protection office in Hamburg,
Germany, fined Google for hoovering up data from unsecured wireless networks
while taking photographs for the company's Street View service. The company was
handed a 145,000 euro fine -- a pittance for the company but nearly the maximum
allowed under German laws. In a similar case in Italy, authorities handed
Google a 1 million euro fine for after Street View cars photographed people
without their knowledge. According to Hayes, the European Union and its member
states "have meted out millions in fines" against the company.
Europe's strong stance on privacy is not limited to Google.
Last month, the ECJ struck down an EU directive mandating telecom operators to
store customer data for up to two years. The directive, which was introduced in
2006 after the train bombings in Madrid two years earlier, was aimed at helping
security forces combat terrorists. The court
ruled that "by requiring the retention of those data and by allowing
the competent national authorities to access those data, the directive
interferes in a particularly serious manner with the fundamental rights to
respect for private life and to the protection of personal data."
Last month, the European Parliament updated the initial
regulatory framework for online data protection in Europe, which was drafted in
1995, with a law intended to strengthen and streamline the privacy provisions
across the continent. (To become law, the regulation must be adopted by
the European Council.) The March legislation would codify many key reforms at
the EU level, including increasing authorities' ability to issue fines in
antitrust cases and limiting data transfers to non-EU countries. Tuesday's
"right to be forgotten" ruling is part of this broader move toward data
protection and privacy in Europe.
All in all, Google has had a hard go of it in Europe -- even
when it comes to the Internet giant's latest digital innovation, Google Glass.
Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported
that Glass was "years away from hitting the European market." And while European
lawmakers are surely concerned about the privacy implications of the wearable
computer, the reason for its delay have little to do with the data storage: The
device's voice-recognition software, according to the Journal, just
can't understand foreign accents.
GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images