The Power of Google

I seem never to have blogged about the “right to be forgotten” enshrined into European law by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in a judgment issued in May. An interesting recent blog post by Paul Bernal allows me to do offer a few random observations on the matter. Better late than never, right?

In a nutshell, the “right to be forgotten” allows a person to request a search provider (for example, Google) to remove links to “inadequate, irrelevant or excessive” ― even if factually correct ― information about that person for search results. If the search provider refuses, the person can ask national privacy authorities to compel the removal. Google is most dissatisfied with being asked to handle thousands of such requests and to weigh the privacy interests of those who make them against the public interest in access to information (as well the freedom of expression of those providing the information in the first instance). It says that it cannot perform this balancing act, and indeed its first stabs at it have sometimes been very clumsy ― so much so that, as prof. Bernal explains, people have suspected it of doing a deliberately poor job so as to discredit the whole concept of the right to be forgotten.

Google has responded by setting up a group of experts ― ostensibly to advise on implementing the right to be forgotten but really, prof. Bernal implies, to make sure that the conversation about it happens on its own terms. And that, according to prof. Bernal, includes not paying attention to “the power of Google” ―its “[p]ower over what is found – and not found” about anyone, reflected by the way we use the phrase “to google someone”; its agenda-setting power; and its ability to influence not only journalists and experts, but also policy-makers. Prof. Bernal points out that Google creates (and tweaks) the algorithms which determine what results appear and in what order when a search is run, and that it has not always upheld freedom of expression at the expense of all other values. Google systematically removes links to websites due to copyright-infringement, as well as for a variety of other reasons. Its right to be forgotten tantrum should be viewed in that context, says prof. Bernal; we mustn’t forget Google power, and the variety of ways in which it exercises it.

Fair enough. I have myself written (notably here and here) about Google’s dual, and conflicted, role as at once a speaker and a censor. Google wants to be treated as a speaker ― and granted freedom of speech ― in designing its search algorithms. It also takes on a role of regulator or censor, whether on behalf of its own values and priorities (commercial or otherwise), those of its clients or partners, or those of governments. And there is a standing danger that Google will be tempted to play its role as regulator and censor of the speech of others in such a way as to gain more leeway (especially from governments) when it comes to is own.

Yet to my mind, this inherent conflict is, if anything, more reason to believe that making Google into an arbiter of private and public interests is a bad idea. The ECJ offloads the responsibility of balancing individual privacy rights and public interest in access to information on Google and its competitors, at least in the first instance, but why would we want to give such a responsibility to companies that have such a twisted set of incentives? Prof. Bernal is right that Google is not an unconditional defender of freedom of expression ― but instead of concluding that it might as well compromise it some more, this time in the name of privacy, isn’t that a reason for thinking that we cannot rely on it to strike the right balance between the rights and interests implicated by the right to be forgotten?

Another thing that we might want to keep in mind when we think of “the power of Google” in the context of the right to be forgotten, is the nature of that power. It is not, like the power of the state, a coercive one. In a sense, Google has a great deal of market power, but the users of its search service hardly feel it as “power.” We know that we have easily accessible alternatives to Google (notably, Microsoft’s Bing, and Yahoo!). We just don’t feel (for the most part) like using them ― for whatever reason, but not because anybody forces us to. And I think it matters that the power of Google is not a collective power of people acting together (like the power of the state) but, if that’s the right word, a composite power ― the sum of a great number of individual actions more or less insignificant by themselves. Despite the fact that, as prof. Bernal rightly points out, Google’s algorithms are not somehow natural or neutral, it is, in a real sense a conduit for the disparate actions and interests of isolated individuals, rather than a vehicle for the expression of their collective will. To me, that makes the power of Google, at least this aspect of it, a rather less threatening one.

It is also a democratizing one. By making it easier to find information about someone, it makes such research accessible not only to those who have a staff of researchers (or police officers, or intelligence agents!) at their disposal, but to ordinary citizens. And this is precisely what worries the advocates of the right to be forgotten. It is indeed a curious right, one that apparently only exists online. Nobody says that libraries or archives should purge information about people once it becomes “irrelevant or excessive.” (Indeed, at least for now, the right to be forgotten does not even require substantive information to be taken down from the Internet, or even links to such information to be removed from ordinary websites. They must, it seems, only be expunged from search results.) So someone with a lot of time and/or money on his or her hands can still find that information. It’s those without resources to expend on an extended investigation who must be deprived of it. That too, I think, is something to keep in mind when thinking about the right to be forgotten.

This all might not amount to very much. Insofar as prof. Bernal calls for nuance and a fuller appreciation of the facts in thinking about the right to be forgotten and Google’s role in implementing it, I second him. If have a distinct message of my own, it is probably that an actor having “power” is not, without more, a reason for pinning any particular responsibility on it. We should be wary of power, whatever its form, but it doesn’t follow that we should burden anyone powerful in whatever way we can think of. If anything, power should be checked and balanced ― balanced, that is, with countervailing powers, not with responsibilities that can, in the hands of the powerful, become excuses for further self-aggrandizement more than limits on their action.

H/t: Yves Faguy

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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