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Europe Says Google Has to Delete Embarrassing Data

Peter Z. Scheer
Managing Editor
Peter Scheer grew up in the newspaper business, spending family vacations with his mother at newspaper editors' conferences, enjoying daycare in editorial departments and begrudgingly reviewing his father's…
Peter Z. Scheer

The European Union’s highest court issued a tough verdict Tuesday that could be a boon to privacy, but a loss to free access to information — and the business model of companies such as Google and Facebook.

A Spanish man argued that an old debt from 1998 should not follow him every time his name is punched into a Google search. The court agreed, and said Google (and other companies, by implication) would have to purge links to such information if certain conditions were met. Consumers would ostensibly have to go to “the competent authorities” (whomever those are) in order to have their rights enforced. The court may have been deliberately vague in order to allow the EU’s constituent nations the right to figure out enforcement. Basically, though, it’s a big slap in the face of Google, which now has to intentionally make its core product — making all the world’s information easily searchable — worse. At least for one continent. Also, there’s no potential for appeal.

You can, and Google did, make the free speech argument. What if, for example, Bill Clinton asks Google to purge all references to his affair with Monica Lewinsky?

There’s another wrinkle. Many of the Internet’s biggest corporations make their fortunes selling ads against the personal data they collect from their users. To what extent can Google’s users, at least in Europe, now ask to be purged from its databases?

The Los Angeles Times reports that Europe has a more pronounced expectation of privacy, which might conflict with the United States’ strong notions of free speech and a free press. It will be interesting to see this tug of war play out over the next few years.

In the meantime, don’t expect Google to pull its stakes out of Europe. There’s money on the table, and it’s not going away anytime soon because one Spaniard will finally know peace.

— Posted by Peter Z. Scheer

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