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The Rights and Responsibilities of Search Engine Users

While truth has usually been a defense to charges of libel, Google is running into a higher standard in Europe. The European Union Court of Justice, considering the threat that Google can pose to privacy, seems to be applying a standard closer to the “Is it True? Is it Kind? Is it Necessary?” test.

In the press release announcing their decision, the European Court ruling found that Google was trampling on a right to be forgotten. Even if the information Google was linking to was accurate and lawfully published, Google and other search engines could be at fault for making that information too easy to find. Google wouldn’t have to purge this information preemptively, just in response to complaints, but, still, acceding to this ruling would still be tremendously difficult.

Google is already engaged in one enormous curation problem: policing content uploaded to YouTube. Although algorithms can detect piracy and copyright infringement, detecting obscenity still relies on the “I know it when I see it” test, which requires a human viewer. Google contractors have to watch content flagged as abusive, violent, or obscene in order to rule it in or out. Screening links for “relevance” would be emotionally easier than taking a shift in the YouTube curatorial department, but the judgement calls will be a lot harder to defend.

Google’s leadership presumably would like to avoid being dragged into culture fights, especially when only one month ago they faced controversy over the decision to purge ads for crisis pregnancy centers from searches related to abortion. But the European ruling could force them to play referee on a host of new issues. Google (in partnership with a European court) would now be expected to assess the relevance of any information and the prominence of the person filing.

Would Google have a duty to keep abreast of the employment history of the people asking to be removed from searches? If not, people just on the cusp of prominence might file general takedowns, to avoid the fate of the Benham brothers. Their show on HGTV was cancelled before it began when their Google histories of anti-gay marriage and anti-Islam activism caught up with them. Asking Google to manage your online identity would still be easier than the solution that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt once proposed: declare identity bankruptcy and legally change your name to escape your search results.

If Europe has an expansive view of the right to be forgotten, America has a sprawling understanding of the right to information. Anything that enters the public sphere, even phone calls recorded illegally, can be fair game for public comment and calls to action. Simply leaving your house and going to WalMart is enough to put you in the public eye as a public figure to be discussed and disparaged on People of Walmart.

Just because information is easy to come by, through Google or any other source, doesn’t exempt us from responsibility for seeking it out and acting upon it. Instead of depending on a right to be forgotten, our society is healthier when people choose to avert their eyes or look with charity.

The solution may not be for Google to become a curator but for searchers to learn to practice better custody of the eyes. After all, hasn’t the internet age taught us that large duties are easier to handle when they’re crowdsourced?

about the author

Leah Libresco is a statistical analyst in a school network. She is a graduate of Yale University and lives in Washington D.C. She is a contributor to Patheos at Unequally Yoked, and her work has also appeared in First Things, The Huffington Post, and Fare Forward. You can follow her on twitter at @leahlibresco.

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