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Path to censorship?

Interview: Zulfikar Abbany / jlwMay 13, 2014

The European Union's top court says Internet search engines should heed requests to remove links to people's personal data from their results pages. But James Waterworth tells DW this opens the door to censorship.

Google Logo
Image: Reuters

DW: A lot of the discussion around this particular landmark case, which involved the Spanish data protection agency and a Spanish man against Google Spain and Google Inc, has centered around the distinction between a data controller and a data processor. But underlying this is what happens on a day-to-day basis for Internet users. Your position is that it centers around media freedoms. How do you feel about that?

James Waterworth: Much of the way people access information today is from the internet, often getting to it though services like the one in the judgment, i.e., through Google. We are really concerned that today's judgment opens the door to censorship, a new form of censorship over the internet, potentially to the whitewashing of history where people who have a grudge against something that is being said online in a link can simply write to the Internet company and have that information taken down. We think this is a dangerous precedent.

In this particular case, we're talking about information that was published around 1998 and was correct at the time. So when you talk about censorship and whitewashing and rewriting history, surely that is a reflection of how much time we are spending online and how much of our lives we are putting online. Sometimes we slip up and make mistakes, don't we?

I might prefer, and politicians might prefer, for information not to be out in the public, but if it's true, people have a right to know. So it's a very dangerous route if we decide that something that is legally allowed to be published in a Spanish newspaper can't then be shown on the Internet. This is a very dangerous trend.

Portrait of James Waterworth
James Waterworth is concerned the Google ruling may impact freedom of informationImage: James Waterworth/CCIA

So how do you feel about the fact that this article was published in a newspaper with a relatively high circulation? There is probably a physical version of this article tucked away in some archive in a library, which is probably still accessible. Yet in this case, we are saying that the Internet version of that article should be removed, or we should all have the right to have that removed.

Exactly, and this raises the potential that we go to all the libraries in Spain and ask to have that article removed from those libraries.

And obviously, picking up on what you are saying, that's not the way to go, is it?

Clearly it is not the way to go. Given the heritage we have, whether the literary heritage or the information about people, it's important that people have access to information. The Internet has provided people with even easier access to information at a lower cost. That sometimes is uncomfortable for people who have done something wrong, but it is also extremely beneficial for society that politicians and other powerful people are held to account.

But the difference between a physical copy of an article on a piece of paper tucked away in an archive and what's online is the interconnectedness of all this information. Through an online search you can build a profile of a person. Isn't that what really makes the internet different in this age - that we can connect details of people's lives in such a way that can be perhaps a disadvantage to them, that people might not really recognize that what happened to a person in 1998 is not really relevant today?

Researchers have always been able to go to a university library or a public library and search for back copies of newspapers and compare what one newspaper said and what another newspaper said and build a profile of a story that was going on about a person. What the Internet has done is to democratize this. It was once for the select few that they could go to libraries and access this information and now it's available to anybody. We think this democratization is clearly a good thing.

A symbolic image of a woman searcing google
Search engines have democratized access to informationImage: picture-alliance/All Canada Photos

Well, the democratization is a good thing but these Internet companies also carry out such online profiling in order to conduct targeted advertising. Surely, that is not a positive development in our society, is it?

That's a different question to the one that is addressed in today's court ruling where they are talking about an Internet company or an Internet platform, which simply hosts links to other company's websites and other people's information. They are not controlling the data in this case; they are providing a link to a publically available piece of information that is someone else's.

But the court did show that Google could be at once controller and processor of this data and that's why it was able to arrive at this decision today.

Which seems very strange, because many other data protection authorities have said that search engines are not controllers of the data because they are just providing the links to other people's information or services. So this [judgement] seems to go against the grain in the thinking.

We are in a European elections year and when we talk about the right to be forgotten and data protection, that is something which rings a lots of bells with the electorate. Do you think that may have also played into this decision here - that there are politicians who are going to want to gain some capital, like Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner responsible for this area?

I hope the European Court of Justice is acting independently of the political process and doesn't play a role in this at all. But you are right to link it to the elections because this potentially opens the flood gates to tens of thousands of people writing to Internet companies asking for information about them to be taken down. And who knows how many candidates for the elections in two weeks time will be getting out their pens and writing to newspapers, search engines and others and trying to get information taken down about them that they feel is uncomfortable.

James Waterworth is the vice president for Europe for the Computer and Communications Industry Association [CCIA]. He is responsible for advising members and policy makers on a wide range of issues including intellectual property, international trade and internet regulation.