In Europe, citizens have the right to remove themselves from Google. In Australia, our lawmakers don’t respect our privacy all that much.
Are you happy being Australian, or would you prefer to be European? Before you answer that, let me give you one more fact that might change your mind. There is one important thing Europeans have that we don’t: the right to be forgotten. Let me explain. Say you post a drunken photograph online when you are 17, but would like a responsible job as a criminal lawyer when you are 30. Then that youthful faux-pas might come back to haunt you. Because everything that was ever put online, by yourself or somebody else, is still there, and will be there forever. If you ever got into trouble with the law, or said something racist or generally stupid when you got angry; the moment “send” was pressed, it became part of your online footprint. Ten years later you might not feel like that anymore, but that is irrelevant. Once online stays online. In Australia. But since 2014, not in Europe.
It all started with a Spanish guy called Mario Costeja González. In 1998 he had some troubles with debt and was forced to sell a property. Because it was a legal issue, it made it to a newspaper, which also threw it on its website. From there, it was possible to find what had happened, by simply using Google. In 2009, González, now an upstanding citizen, contacted the newspaper to complain that whenever people looked up his name online, they found his past troubles. Would it be possible, he asked, to do something about that? The newspaper told him to go and talk to Google, so González did. He also lodged a complaint with the Spanish Data Protection Agency and it ruled in 2010 that Google should remove the links. Google protested and went to the Spanish High Court, which looked at the case and stayed proceedings when it realised that the European Court of Justice was investigating something similar. It took its time, but finally, in 2014, it decided that Google needed to do what the Protection Agency had told it to do. In fact, it went a whole lot further. It ruled that there was now so much of people online, that who we are is in essence decided by who we appear online. And that therefore, the rights of us as users of data collectors like Google are more important than the “economic interests of the operator of the search engine”. So, if users asked Google and the like, it should remove links to things that were “irrelevant or inadequate”. There were two exceptions: if people were public figures, public interest would go above theirs. And only search engines, not newspapers, were forced to delink. All of this was, the verdict said, to give people “the right to be forgotten”.
During WWII, most countries had to pay in blood for the fact that they couldn’t protect their people’s privacy. The Nazi’s just came in, opened up the meticulously-kept record offices and knew exactly where to find the Jews, artists, homosexuals and political adversaries.
Immediately, all hell broke loose, on a number of fronts. First, there were the people who argued that this right of privacy and to have your past remain in the past was surely not more important than the right to free speech. Removing things was censorship, they said, and a rewriting of history. Google wasn’t happy either. It went to court again, especially because at the end of the first day the principle became European law (May 31, 2014), 12,000 requests had been received. In November of 2014, the European regulator rejected Google’s protests. It told it to adhere to the rules or risk fines of between 2% and 5% of its global operating costs. A few days later, it also included other search engines, like Bing and Yahoo, into the General Data Protection Regulation. For a while, Google tried to get around the rules by only adhering to them in European domains, but that trick was quickly thwarted as well. Then other areas of the world had a look at the European legislation. China decided that citizens did not have the right to be forgotten, Argentina and South Korea thought they did. And Indian courts are still thinking about it.
Of course, Europe is a very particular area of the world. Especially during WWII, most countries had to pay in blood for the fact that they couldn’t protect their people’s privacy. The Nazi’s just came in, opened up the meticulously-kept record offices and knew exactly where to find the Jews, artists, homosexuals and political adversaries. The only thing they had to do was pick them up and send them to concentration camps. That would not have been that easy without the records, and after the war this inspired privacy laws that were much more stringent than anywhere else in the world. Now, with the 2014 protections, the right to be forgotten has even been enshrined as an international human right. In Europe. Where Google has received 700,000 “delinking” requests in four years. In Australia, we don’t seem to care about our privacy that much. The Australian Law Reform Commission has decided that we don’t need this European human right, and it doesn’t seem reason for a discussion in our media either. What do you think? Remembered or forgotten? European or Australian?