The Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph, May 23, 2014
Little more than a day after a recent ruling by Europe's highest court which said that people "have a right to be forgotten," search engine giant Google began receiving requests from individuals to remove links to unwanted personal information. That swift reaction demonstrates just how significant the ruling could eventually be for future access to information on the Internet.
While the ruling only affects those in the European Union, the issues it addresses are festering around the U.S. and in New Hampshire. How the personal privacy vs. free speech battle plays out in Europe could influence the evolution of law here.
What has observers struggling to understand how far-reaching the judgment could be is that the court offered almost no direction for Google and other Web search engines.
The court simply said search engines must listen to, and sometimes comply with, requests to remove links to articles or other sites containing outdated or objectionable material. This opens the possibility that rules for link removal established by Google could differ from rules established by other search engines. So, while privacy advocates herald the ruling, the practical effect, at least for the immediate future, is confusion.
A particularly vexing issue for free-speech advocates is that the ruling extends to accurate and lawful information. For many, that's tantamount to rewriting or, worse, wiping out history because of someone's individual preference. Search engines do not want to be put in the position of judging what types of legal, public records should be linked, and which should be blocked.
Google has maintained that if a person has an issue with personal information revealed in its Web links, the source of the information is responsible for fixing or removing it.
But the court found that Google also has a shared responsibility and could be petitioned directly by people seeking to block public access to their information.
What strikes observers as odd is that, while the court ruled that Google must remove offending links, the same requirement was not imposed on the actual sources of the information. That's counter to the prevailing view in this country, where search engines are not viewed as instruments of dissemination.
For example, lawsuits have been filed against websites that publish police mug shots. Most recently, a Florida woman sued InstantCheckmate.com for its use of her 2010 DUI arrest photograph. Interestingly, she sued not on the grounds that her personal privacy was violated, but because the site used her photo in promotional materials without her permission and without providing compensation.
The issue is not dead in New Hampshire. There have been rumblings about legislation that would force newspapers and other media sites to remove arrest records and other articles when criminal charges are dismissed or convictions annulled. While nothing has happened yet, editors can attest that they regularly receive requests for unflattering information be removed from their websites.
That might be a tough sell considering the state Supreme Court's 2011 ruling involving a Portsmouth Herald story that detailed information about an assault charge that was dismissed and later annulled.
The court found that, while state law provides that people with annulled criminal records are entitled to be treated as if they were never arrested, convicted or sentenced, "it does not enshroud the record itself with a cloak of secrecy."
Those are reassuring words for supporters of free speech and transparency in New Hampshire.