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June 2, 2014

In Our Opinion: Google ruling is a bad solution

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The Daily Star

---- — What if you could rewrite history and make it so people wouldn’t know about unsavory elements of your past? 

It’s not science fiction; it’s the European Union. 

Earlier this month, the high court of the EU ruled that search engines such as Google have to comply with personal requests to remove links to Web pages. 

As David Streitfeld wrote in the New York Times, “It raised the possibility that a Google search could become as cheery — and as one-sided — as a Facebook profile or an About.me page.”

The ruling only applies to citizens of the EU, so for the rest of us, we’re still at the mercy of Google’s algorithms, which decide which search results to return at the top of the page when someone looks for our name. 

The ruling means that each person’s request to have links removed is going to be considered by Google et al. No definitive standard was created for which links stay and which ones go. 

This landmark decision may sound appealing on an individual basis, but less so in the big picture. 

For example, a person might feel relieved to have links to a 10-year-old drunk driving arrest removed from Google search results. But what if the pedophile down the street has his search results cleaned up, too? 

The problem with the court’s decision is that it puts a private company like Google in the position of picking and choosing who gets to control search results. It’s no stretch to imagine that those with money and power will be able to tip the scales in their favor. 

The case began in an ordinary enough fashion. As The New York Times recounts it, “Mario Costeja, a Spanish lawyer, complained (in 2009) that entering his name in Google led to legal notices dating to 1998 in an online version of a Spanish newspaper that detailed his debts and the forced sale of his property.

“Mr. Costeja said the debt issues had been resolved many years earlier and were no longer relevant. So he asked the newspaper that had published the information ... to remove the notices and Google to expunge the links.”

When they refused, Costeja’s case began. 

The Daily Star has received plenty of phone calls from people like Costeja. But — unlike what the EU court is asking Google to do — this newspaper does not pick and choose whose arrest records are available to the public. Neither do the police. If it happened, it happened, and that’s that. 

What this newspaper will do is amend past notices to reflect current information. So, if a charge is dropped or a case is dismissed, that information can appear along with the original notice. 

It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s better than the one the EU has imposed on Google.