The Passage of Time (Photo credit: ToniVC)
In all this hullabaloo about the EU ‘censoring’ Google search results by requiring the company to remove ‘inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant’ data about individuals upon request, an important technical and legal distinction has been largely overlooked. Further, the case raises significant questions about the nature of time in a largely timeless internet.
Some columnists, such as the CBC’s Don Pittis, have likened these developments to Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Truth’ in 1984. By requiring Google to remove links from its index on request (though with due consideration of public interest), critics argue that individuals—and more worryingly, governments—will be able to control information and ‘truth’ as it is known and available to the public. While it is true that items removed from the search index will be more difficult to find, in the case that was considered, the newspaper was permitted to keep the original content online. Google just isn’t allowed to link to it. The reason for this distinction? The Guardian’s Charles Arthur explains in one of the better articles on the issue:
Q: Why is it Google is being hit by this and not the newspaper?
A: Because the newspaper gets the protection of being “media” under European data protection law (which offers various protections and exemptions for journalistic work). Google has explicitly opted out of being described as a “media” company.
But the judges decided that because Google collects lots of data and then processes it, and that that data includes information about people, it is a “data controller” under the meaning of the EU data protection directive. “Data controllers” have special obligations in the EU – including the responsibility to remove data that is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”.
This actually makes a lot of sense, though I’m curious as to why Google has opted out of being considered a media company. By requiring data controllers to maintain accurate and relevant records (or to at least correct their records on request of the individual), the EU works toward maintaining the integrity of the information publicly available about a person. In a more extreme but quite possible case, imagine one has been accused of murder, but is then acquitted. A data controller that only provided information about the accusation, and not the acquittal, would be sharing data that is at least ‘inadequate’, and would certainly sway the opinions of the reader (or searcher) in a negative light. Media companies, however, should be exempt in the interest of legal and historical archives.
I’m not entirely sure this is the best solution: people going to Google expect it to be an archive of links to everything, and removing links can make it appear as if those items don’t exist at all. Perhaps it’s time we learned to use other indexes. (I’m coming to think that’s the more and more the case anyway as it is often difficult to find particular information on specialized topics.)
But all this raises more questions about the nature of the internet itself. For all that is dynamic about the internet—computers added and removed, data presentations that are accurate up-to-the-minute, messages sent, received, deleted—the internet as a whole acts as if everything is static. Computers (and the resources they provided) that were there but aren’t anymore simply don’t exist. Other pages that were published ten years ago are accessible just as if they were published yesterday, and sometimes look just like it too. Now that the internet is ‘old’, this turns into a real problem.
Take, for instance, this blog. If you go back into the archives six years, what except the publishing date indicates the age of any of the posts I made back then? There is no yellowing of paper, no searching through the library shelves, to find the articles that I don’t even remember, might not even agree with. Indeed, much has changed, such that I’ve considered (and am still considering) removing some of the old content, though the archivist in me rails against it. Even with the timestamp, posts appear deceptively recent, much worse for sites where the date isn’t posted or isn’t easy to access.
The Guardian’s Viktor Mayer-Schönberger makes this salient observation on the nature of the internet:
With digital memory, almost global access, and easy retrieval through search engines such as Google, we essentially have undone forgetting. The past has begun to follow us, and all of our misdeeds remain remembered. But it is not just that we find ourselves in a straitjacket of the past that we cannot shake. When we Google someone, we get a mosaic of information that straddles decades of our existence, creating an image that is both incomplete and strangely devoid of time.
Even with timestamps on articles and resources such as archive.org that ‘remember’ old but no-longer-existing pages, the internet is ‘devoid of time’. Any chronology is imposed upon it, necessarily perhaps but not natively to the timeless networks of cables and data. It makes it as difficult to forget as to remember that there was something forgotten. While there are legitimate concerns about the implementation of the EU ruling, it’s a generally good step toward humanizing the internet.