Google does not practice what it preaches.
Google’s hypocrisy is legion in opposing Europe’s “right to be forgotten” court decision, and in implementing it in such a passive-aggressive way.
By cynically inflaming media concern over freedom of the press, Google’s public relations machine transmogrifies Google from privacy bully into innocent victim of censorship and champion of the industry it has long gutted.
Google is disserving the public discourse by simplistically framing this complex issue as a false binary technology choice between the public’s right to know and individual’s right to privacy; and then by spotlighting the smidgen of forget-requests that Google knows are media-outrage catnip.
Listening to Google and their defenders, one would never know that the actual number of individual forget-requests is infinitesimal in relation to the number of web-pages Google indexes, the searches Google completes, or the private information Google archives.
This latest episode of Google hypocrisy calls for us to subject Google to the same measure of scrutiny to which Google subjects us.
First, Google takes an absolutist binary technology view that all information should be public and never forgotten.
Remember, Google’s unique “mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It makes Google see any sovereign privacy or data protection limits as a threat to Google’s mission tantamount to censorship.
In effect, Google has appointed itself the world’s supreme information authority where it collects and archives “the world’s information,” and is the practical decider of what information is discovered by whom and what information is weakly-ranked to avoid discovery.
Google knows information is power, and it is fully-aware of its exceptional power and control over the masses’ access to the world’s information. Note Google’s head of search ranking hailed Google as “the biggest kingmaker on this earth,” and Google SVP Jonathan Rosenberg blogged: “We won’t (and shouldn’t) try to stop the faceless scribes of drivel, but we can move them to the back row of the arena.”
If it’s digitize-able, Google claims it as theirs to use as they want regardless of whether it is private or others’ property, and that it’s their divine right to decide who does and doesn’t find it.
Second, few have thought through the societal implications of Google’s absolutist binary technology approach for democracy and individual rights, especially where Google is the dominant, or near dominant decider of what digital information is discovered and monetized.
Google is treating the “right to be forgotten” like an existential threat — this should not be a surprise. Google owns the world’s worst privacy record with a total of thirty-two official sovereign privacy actions against it in the EU and 11 countries including the U.S., France, the U.K., Germany, Brazil, Japan, Netherlands, Spain, Korea, Canada, and Italy.
Remarkably, Google claims in U.S. court that Americans have no legal “expectation of privacy,” just like the NSA has claimed in defending its own omni-surveillance practices in court.
For example, it has claimed the right to read the private content of all users’ emails for its own commercial purposes, and claimed that all the unencrypted WiFi signals emanating from a person’s home that it records are public, not private.
Third, consider how unreasonable, unfair and unjust Google’s absolutist binary approach to privacy is.
The media fully appreciate life is not binary absolutes and that there are other fundamental values that militate against an absolute right to free speech or to a free press. People have no reasonable free speech right to commit perjury, libel, slander, misrepresentation, lying under oath, fraud, inciting a riot, etc.
The media understand that there are reasonable limits to freedom of the press, like respecting, for example, the identity and privacy of minors and rape victims, and the confidentiality of ongoing law enforcement investigations and legitimate national security operations.
More than most anyone media editors appreciate that all of the world’s information is not of equal importance, worth, or interest to the public at large.
Google’s opposition to an individual’s right to be forgotten is unreasonable.
As the most dominant public source of information access by far, it is reasonable to expect Google to have a special responsibility to be fair and just in how it handles serious complaints that affect an individual’s public reputation or right to privacy.
Life in the real world is not binary like it regularly is treated in the tech world. It’s not a one or a zero, not black or white, but rich in human and societal complexity with all sorts of colors, patterns and textures that in some circumstances warrant special appreciation, respect and balance.
Government, media editors, companies and citizens routinely apply reasonable discretion and ethical standards to respect people and to treat them fairly, justly, decently and with compassion.
Perversely, Google opposes a regular citizen having an independent right to appeal Google’s exceptional power to permanently define and destroy their personal reputation to the world, regardless of whether the information is accurate, fair, or just.
Regular people routinely forgive one another and seek to put a dispute or ill-chosen words said in hurt or anger in the past — they can let bygones be bygones.
Why, as a matter of policy, does Google want to thwart that good outcome for society and not let them be forgotten? Why would Google want to make peaceful resolution of disputes harder, not easier?
Society, government and people routinely show compassion, decency, mercy and forgiveness to their fellow man or woman because it’s the right thing to do — given special circumstances or mitigating factors.
Why does Google begrudge society wanting to forget painful personal things about regular citizens that are publicly trivial, not newsworthy, private, or serve little purpose to keep in the Google search index?
What purpose does Google’s absolutist approach serve in ensuring that regular people can never forget false accusations, innocent mistakes, accidents or everyday human stupidity and thoughtlessness online?
Why did it have to take a court decision to get Google to do the decent and honorable thing that people of good conscience do routinely for other people in the real world?
Society understands cruel and unusual punishment is wrong. Never being allowed to forget and forever being defined by a false accusation, youthful or stupid personal mistake that did not harm others is cruel.
Removing information worthy of being forgotten from the Google index is not censorship, because the information lives on in its original place in the public domain, it is just mercifully less efficient for others to find.
Google’s absolutist approach to information justice is akin to a system that always sees and then indefinitely punishes whoever exceeds a speed limit, jaywalks, spits, etc. As a society we don’t countenance that level of oppressiveness in the real world, and we shouldn’t countenance it in the virtual world either.
Our system of comity and justice recognize the need to fairly address the proportionality of a sanction to an offense, and to appropriately factor in the passage of time.
There are sentencing guidelines and ranges for a reason. There are statutes of limitation for lesser offenses for a reason. There are protections against cruel or demeaning treatment for a reason. There is time off for good behavior for good reason.
Not only do individuals have rights, they also deserve to be treated personally with dignity and respect.
That Google’s algorithm is programmed to ensure that the worst information on someone may rank first or highest indefinitely — whether or not it is true — is just wrong.
If Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” motto is genuine and not more hypocrisy, why does Google oppose a regular person’s right to be forgotten?
Individual rights exist to protect individuals and minorities from tyranny.
The right to be forgotten is an essential protection from the new tyranny that Google has mastered, which is that modern surveillance technology makes it hyper-efficient, easy and near-free to collect and disseminate private information that previously was practically private.
Please consider how Orwellian Google has become when it can manipulate public opinion to believe it is somehow more important for Google to be able to violate every individuals’ right to privacy than it is for individuals to have some process to assert some right to privacy?
Lastly, remember Thomas Jefferson wisely said: “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”
Scott Cleland is President of Precursor LLC, a consultancy serving Fortune 500 clients, some of which are Google competitors. He is also author of “Search & Destroy: Why You Can’t Trust Google Inc. Cleland has testified before both the Senate and House antitrust subcommittees on Google and also before the relevant House oversight subcommittee on Google’s privacy problems.