It looks like the European Union is going to be the test case for search engine link deletion in the name of individual privacy. Some are saying this is the end of the internet as we know it because unfettered search results of the past are now going to be censored. Others are saying this is the start of a new era for individual privacy. My guess is that it will be somewhere in between the two ends of the spectrum.
Google already unveiled the new form earlier this week where users can request to delete a link that is: irrelevant, outdated, or otherwise inappropriate. Procedurally, it appears a resident of a European country can visit the site https://support.google.com/legal/contact/lr_eudpa?product=websearch. The user then fills out the form and Google will sometime in the future make its determination. ]It is unclear how which links will be selected for removal and which links will remain in the database. Since this is uncharted territory for any search engine, the results will be interesting.
Courts are given power to adjudicate the law in its given jurisdiction — a geographical boundary. However, the internet is not very good at setting boundaries. Some countries try to filter the internet within their borders to varying degrees of success. Licenses also restrict content providers from where they may provide their goods, through geo-blocking. It is unclear at best how Google will only limit residents of the European Union to its link removal service. The internet knows no speech boundaries. It is quite possible that after some time Google may allow all searchers to file for link removal.
Since it looks like link deletion is here to stay, the impact on speech, if any, needs to be sorted out.
Previously, I analyzed the speech issues associated with the European court’s decision. I argued search engines employ two different types of speech that should be afforded different levels of protection. First, the removal and curation of the index seems to be pure speech. This is where the most human interaction is involved. Second, the ranking of sites seems to be less pure since humans only give the instructions. There are so many websites out there that it is impossible for humans only to build a code that will execute it’s speech.
Proper evaluation of the protection courts will provide for search engine speech is important because technology evolves. A letter from Sergy Brin and Larry Page to the shareholders in 2013 gives a glimpse of how search may evolve in the coming years.
While it is still early days, we’ve also made significant progress understanding people’s context, which is crucial if we are to improve human-computer interaction. Think about your commute. You need the traffic information very accessible so you can plan for it, or avoid it altogether. If you’re going to another appointment, you want the directions to start from where you are at that moment (rather than having to type in your location on a small screen). Improved context will also help make search more natural, and not a series of keywords you artificially type into a computer. We’re getting closer: ask how tall the Eiffel Tower is, and then when ‘it’ was built. By understanding what ‘it’ means in different contexts, we can make search conversational.
— Larry Page, 2013 Founder’s Letter, available at https://investor.google.com/corporate/2013/founders-letter.html (last visited June 06, 2014).
It is difficult to assign constitutional protections to technologies because by the times courts come to a consensus the technology is outdated. See United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 845 (2012) (holding a car mounted GPS to monitor the vehicle’s movements constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment). As search engines continue to evolve over time, it is important the judicial rules are able to adapt to the changing technology.