While Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is arguing today both that there’s really not a lot new to the European Court of Justice decision to order Google to adjust its search results to accommodate the right to privacy for one individual and that it really won’t be a problem because Google already handles loads of copyright removal requests very quickly, the decision has also sparked some really rather silly comments all over the media, usually from the neoliberal and libertarian right, that this is a kind of censorship or that it will open the door to states being able to control search results.
I think it’s vital to remember that there’s really an obvious difference between personal privacy, corporate copyright and state secrecy. I really don’t think it’s helpful in discussion to conflate all these as somehow all giving potential precedent to the other (and I should be clear that Mayer-Schönberger is not doing this, he’s merely pointing out the ease with which Google already accommodates copyright takedown notices to show that it’s not hard or expensive for them to comply with this ruling). State attempts to remove things that it finds inconvenient are not the same as the protection of personal privacy, and neither are the same as copyright. This decision is not a precedent for censorship by governments or control by corporations and we should very strongly guard against any attempts to use it in this way.
Google algorithms already do a whole range of work that we don’t see and to suggest that they are (or were) open, free and neutral and will now be ‘biased’ or ‘censored’ after this decision is only testament to how much we rely on Google to a large extent, unthinkingly. This is where I start to part company with Mayer-Schönberger is in his dismissal of the importance of this case as just being the same as a records deletion request in any other media. It isn’t; it’s much more significant.
You are sill perfectly free to make the effort to consult public records about the successful complainant in the case (or anyone else) in the ways you always have. The case was not brought against those holding or even making the information public. What the case sought to argue, and what the court’s verdict does, is to imply that there are good social reasons to limit the kind of comprehensive and effortless search that Google and other search engines provide, when it comes to the personal history of private individuals – not to allow that one thing that is over and one to continue to define the public perception of a person anywhere in the world and potentially for the rest of their life (and beyond). Something being public is not the same as something being easily and instantaneously available to everyone forever. In essence it provides for a kind of analog of the right of privacy in public places for personal data. And it also recognizes that the existence and potentials of any information technology should not be what defines society, rather social priorities should set limits on how information technologies are used.
Personally, I believe that this is a good thing. However, as the politics of information play out over the next few years, I also have no doubt that it’s something that will be come up again and again in courts across the world…
PS: I first wrote about this back in 2011 here – I think I can still stand behind what I though then!
The New Transparency project is coming to an end, and we are launching our major final report, Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada / Vivre à nu: La surveillance au Canada, in Ottawa on Thursday 8th May (which is also my birthday!). The report is being published as a book by Athabasca University Press, so it is available in all formats including a free-t0-download PDF. We want as many people in Canada (and elsewhere) to read it as possible.
The launch will be covered by the Canadian press and was already blogged in the Ottawa Citizen a few days ago.
A website with resources and summaries will be here very soon, and there is also a promotional video / trailer here in Youtube.
I’ve written here in the past about British blacklisting organisations that compile lists of ‘troublemakers’ (mainly union activists) and sell them to building firms and share them with police. This has led to people being unable to get jobs and all kinds of hassle. In theory, the notorious Economic League which started this activity back in the 1920s is now disbanded but their mantle was taken up by a number of other private bodies, including the Consulting Association, which was the subject of an unusual raid by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) back in 2009.
Now it seems that in the era of transnational information sharing for ‘security’, such lists have found their way to the US Homeland Security complex. According to a report in the London Evening Standard, his certainly seems to be the case for major British mainstream environmental campaigner, John Stewart, formerly of the anti-road building lobby, Alarm UK and now of the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (HACAN).
If such private politically motivated lists are now circulating internationally and being treated as reasonable grounds for refusing entry to other countries, it makes a mockery of the fact that they have already been found to be in breach of British and European laws, and it is likely that such data will continue to circulate entirely decontextualized from the circumstances and motivation of their collection. So an illegal anti-democratic trawling operation to stop legitimate political activity becomes the basis for security decisions to err… safeguard democracy. It would be funny if it wasn’t already so common and will continue to be so as security relies increasingly on risk assessments derived from the indiscriminate mashing together of information into ‘big data’.
Mozilla, the developer of the Firefox web-browser, has decided that voluntary compliance by advertisers with its ‘Do Not Track’ settings is not working. Advertisers have basically been ignoring what is essentially a request by users, so instead of giving up, Mozilla has taken the right step and will simply not allow ad networks to install cookies on user’s computers or phones. This will of course cut ad revenue to some sites that rely on it, but it will also be a major step to slowing the proliferation of online tracking.
Of course, it can also be seen as a new negotiating position in a long conflict, as the Centre for Democracy and Technology points out, it could be a negotiating position that is all about trying to force companies to implement Do Not Track requests as a compromise from wholesale cookie-blocking. But I’m fully on board with Mozilla here either way. I very much doubt that Microsoft will take a similarly ethical stance on user control – because that’s what this is really about, not privacy as such but who has the right to control information about themselves.
Simon Davies, AKA Privacy Surgeon, and the London School of Economics have a great new survey of privacy predictions for 2013 out now. Key quote from the press release:
“More aggressive action by companies to monetise personal information through advertising will inevitably fuel further controversy, while consolidation of markets such as social networking may induce emerging players to engage dangerous privacy practices.”
Whether 2013 is the tipping point in this regard that the survey suggests or not, it is certainly the case that various ‘lines in the sand’ are being crossed on a regular basis at the moment and if the public aren’t as concerned as the experts surveyed for this report, then privacy may even lose even its tactical utility as a way of opposing surveillance, let alone mean the same thing to most people as it used to.