Search Engine neutrality in Europe in danger: Are 160.000 Google filtering requests good enough?

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The long awaited last public discussion about “the right to be forgotten” took place in Brussels yesterday. This was the last of the seven miracles or otherwise open forums in different European cities that the Californian giant has been organising since last May. The reason for these costly events was to engage civic society in the dialogue of the famous ECJ ruling of last May and consequently to lobby against it.

The panel yesterday at the “capital” of Europe was consisted by Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, Oxford University ethicist, Luciano Floridi and Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, former German minister of justice. What was different in this seventh and final stop of the Google debate tour, as expected, was that EU officials took part to contribute their insights on the “wise” ECJ ruling. Paul Nemitz, a director of the Commission’s justice department, was intensely critical against Google’s “resistance against the right to be forgotten ‘mandate’.

“In Brussels of course we are used to big-time lobbying activities, and as some have commented these panels may in part be a good-faced (well-intentioned) effort to find practical solutions to the problem, but in part of course also they may be passive-aggressiveness toward our data protection rules and our jurisprudence,” he mentioned yesterday. Further, Mr Patrick Van Eecke, Head of the Internet Law Group at law firm DLA Piper state argued: “It’s not Google who should decide about whether or not we remove a link from the search results”…“A search engine should not be involved in deciding whether to remove hyperlink as you would be party and judge at the same time.”

The #righttobeforgotten debate is certainly not something new in Brussels or in the entire digital world. News travel too fast nowadays. The European Sting has been following this topic very closely since the very beginning, keeping a balanced critical approach on the matter that is missing still.

It all started last May when Mario Costeja, citizen of Spanish origin, brought his plea for data privacy right in front of the European Court of Justice. Mr Costeja had previously failed in Spain to succeed the deletion of some inaccurate information available on the Spanish web, referring to his old debts. This man asked ECJ that Google suspends these results and to many people’s surprise he made it. Now, you may think that a one man case is impossible to generate a butterfly effect, opening the doors of “hell” to some hundreds of thousands more requests addressed to Google. Well think again!

Believe it or not, in just 5 months past this ruling, some 160.000 claims for search engine filtering have been received by Google. According to sources, those requests are coming from citizens, companies, even ex-convincted criminals that want to start a new life, erasing all the traces of their tainted past. By the way, does an ex-convincted pedophile have “the right to be forgotten”? Unfortunately this is only one of the questions that one can make.

As expected, the Costeja case and the obscene expansion it has received globally has triggered substantial debates with various angles being lighted. It seems that there are two sides here. On the one hand, you have the EU officials and all fanatic data privacy protectionists. On the other hand, you have entrepreneurs and all fanatic freedom of expression (FoE) protectionists. Both sides have sound arguments but overall it seems that the whole project has not been worked through adequately well.

That an EU Official will protect an ECJ ruling this is something expected of course. That an EU Official is sticking to theoretical terminology without pragmatic approach is unfortunately also expected. And indeed Mr Nemitz is right; Google organised these seven costly meetings around Europe to lobby against the expansion of the ECJ ruling to 1 million filtering requests per second. Almost all is about lobbying in this European capital and we perfectly know it. And surely data privacy is ranked very high in the EU policy agenda, especially after the huge NSA scandals. And it should stay like this. But has anyone thought about the reason Google receives “allies” in this lobby battle, like Wikipedia, which is by the way a completely independent organisation? It is because Google is receiving paid support? No, it is just that the importance of the matter has been severely down played.

What about the “right to be remembered”? The immense debate generated in the blogosphere after May’s ECJ ruling is not generated by Google lobbyists only. Instead, it is generated by critical minds, digital geeks if you like, that are able to see the tricky part of this decision and most of all its domino effect. Clearly freedom of expression is at stake here. It is really awfully frightening to count 160.000 requests to filter Google results in just 5 months time! How many these will be in one year, 3 years or ten years? Probably millions. Who tolerates in today’s ‘digital democracy’ that the most important and accessible information gate, the search engine, is filtered and customised per individual requests?Do you?

It is only unacceptable that in Europe one ECJ case can demolish the high standards of a neutral internet that we enjoy. It is unacceptable that the EU officials who adore the term “data privacy” are not able to also grasp the meaning of the term freedom of expression in the 21st century through new media. It is not the role of the search engine to filter its results according to customised requests or court rulings. At least not in this part of the world.

Another critical issue is the detachment that is noticed in Brussels between EU officials, advocates and philosophical verbose professionals, and entrepreneurship. People in Brussels don’t understand a thing about companies. Consequently more than often they cannot follow. How is it possible for a company/search engine to assess 160.000 requests for filtering? Whether the requests are legit or not, why should Google do it? And who will pay for the additional costs created in the company for this not small “filtering” project?

All in all, the aim of this piece is definitely not to cleanse Google from its ‘sins’. Instead, it is rather to highlight the urgent need for a balanced approach in this case. It is not only about data privacy; it is also freedom of expression that the EU needs to think about. Also, it is about business reality; how search engines are able to cope with this kind of “costly” projects, especially smaller ones than Google.

Most of all, it is about how to stop, control and manage chaos triggered by one single ECJ ruling that created a butterfly effect to the whole continent. The EU needs to watch this incidents and control them before 1 million filtering claims are launched. Then it will be too late. A balanced approach towards the citizen and search engines is highly required, coupled with a clear proposal to describe the “filtering search engines” project, if finally is necessarily required.

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