BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Today's decision by the European Union’s Court of Justice that Google must remove links to accurate news stories about a Spanish citizen creates a “nightmare situation, not only for major online service providers but also for Internet users,” said Fred H. Cate, director of Indiana University’s Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research.
The decision involves a Spanish lawyer who objected to Google’s linking to stories published in La Vanguardia Ediciones SL, a Spanish newspaper. The stories detailed legal proceedings against the attorney in 1998.
“The decision is staggering,” Cate said, “in part because it finds a legal right within Europe to demand that links be removed even though they are to accurate publications of newsworthy events.
“It creates an unworkable situation, in which online service providers now have to have some process for determining when and under what conditions to remove links to material that any European finds objectionable.”
The court provides no standards for Google and other online search engines to follow, and in fact makes clear that accuracy is not a defense.
“Even if there were standards, or if they are supplied by future legislation or regulation, online service providers will have to figure out how to apply them in practice," Cate said. "How will Google determine whether the request comes from a European? How will Google verify that the information concerns the person making the request? How will Google create and finance a scalable process, keeping in mind that there were 3 trillion online searches in 2013. Who will pay for these investigations given that Google provides its search engine to the public for free?”
The United States confronted a similar question in 1996 that Congress resolved by passing a law -- Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act -- providing that online service providers would not be liable for content generated by others.
“With today’s decision, Europe has not merely decided that one party can be held liable for facilitating access to material created by another," Cate said, "but that this is true even where the information is true, concerns a matter of public interest and does not otherwise violate any national law.”
According to Cate, “This decision heightens the tension between the United States and Europe over privacy and freedom of expression -- especially since today’s decision did not require that the Spanish newspaper remove the offending articles from its website, only that U.S.-based Google not link to them -- and runs the risk of miring online service providers with potentially millions of requests to remove links to certain online information that will still be accessible via the Web and will still be linked outside of Europe.
“I am sympathetic with the desire not to have certain information appear online," Cate said. “But this approach is like a child playing peek-a-boo, confident that he is not being watched because he has covered his own eyes.”