September 21, 2014
For The Herald
A difficult week for editors, this week was. Two of the world’s top journalistic institutions, The New York Times and Le Monde, fired their first-ever female editors-in-chief because they were, apparently, too bossy for predominantly male newsrooms and board-rooms. But one other institution that would not necessarily describe itself as a publisher, at least in the traditional sense of the word, has just been forced into the fray: Google.
Europe’s top court said that the world’s leading search engine cannot hide itself behind the alleged transparency of its search algorithm to escape accountability for the results it delivers.
The decision means opening a Pandora box of uncertainty over the Web as the (free?) world.
The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled in a case filed by a Spanish citizen, Mario Costeja, who complained that information on him in Google’s result page led to legal notices in an online version of a Spanish newspaper dating back to 1998. The information detailed his debts and the forced sale of his property. Costeja said his debt issues had been sorted long ago and were no longer relevant. So he asked the newspaper that had published the information, La Vanguardia, to remove the notices and Google to erase the links. They refused, so he went to court. The cased climbed all the way to the continental court.
Care for a paradox? Google was founded on the same year Mr. Costeja nearly went bankrupt. Their paths are only crossing now, and many believe the Court’s ruling could lead to the end of the Web as the world has known it.
Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It claims to have made search “smarter and faster.” In order to do that, Google relies on the reputation of transparency enjoyed by mathematics. Its formula, the PageRank named after one of its two founders Larry Page, sorts Web content according to the amount and relevance of links to a page. It is meant to be free and fair so that the company, as it stated in its initial years, could make money without “doing evil.”
Evil number one for Google would be, technically, tampering with its results. Now this is exactly what the European Court is asking it to do, every once in a while and under certain conditions. The Court said that the search engines are responsible for “the processing that it carries out of personal data which appear on web pages published by third parties.” The key word of the ruling is “processing.” According to the judges, search engines like Google “process” information, “regardless of the fact that the operator of the search engine carries them out without distinction in respect of information other than the personal data.”
The ruling falls just short of using the word “publisher” to refer to the search engines, but the definition it gives of their job leaves little room for debate: “... the organization and aggregation of information published on the Internet that are effected by search engines with the aim of facilitating their users’ access to that information may ... result in them obtaining through the list of results a structured overview of the information relating to that individual that can be found on the internet enabling them to establish a more or less detailed profile of the data subject.” This means Google is responsible for our online profiles — especially for the links listed on the first search pages.
The “right to forget” upheld by the European Court against Google’s wishes to let the results speak for themselves forces the search engine to consider individual requests for deletion of links from now on. The criteria, only defined broadly as information that is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant,” remains vague. It is also not clear how the search companies would deal with a potential avalanche of petitions for search results to be twisted and how the manipulation could affect the credibility of the search tool — which is also the core of its business success.
Google, by the way, controls more than 90 percent of the search market in Europe — a fact that has triggered anti-trust action. This week, a new case was lodged by the Open Internet Project, which includes 400 players on Europe’s digital markets, on grounds that Google is incurring new anti-competitive abuses.
Coincidentally, a few days before the European Court issued its ruling, the Supreme Court here announced that it would hold a public hearing next week regarding a case filed by a fashion model against Google Argentina. María Belén Rodríguez asked the search mammoth to delete mentions of her on porn sites. Rodríguez got a favourable ruling that was then partially overrun by an appeals court.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti addressed a meeting of journalists this week and said that the State should not try to tell journalists what to write. “The State cannot interfere in the journalistic work,” he said. We’ll see whether the Court believes it cannot tell citizens what to search for either.