For some people, Google is a little too good at what it does. What it does is read every pixel of digitized information on public websites stored on servers around the globe, and then deliver an organized and easily accessible page of links to it in response to any question that’s typed into the plain white text box at Google.com.
It’s free, fast and probably the greatest risk to privacy since the invention of windows. Glass windows, not the software kind.
Now the New York state Legislature is considering a new law, Assembly Bill 5323, that would create a “right to be forgotten” on the internet. It would require search engines, indexers, publishers and any other entity that makes information available online to remove “inaccurate,” “irrelevant,” “inadequate” or “excessive” information about an individual, if that individual so requests, within 30 days or face a penalty of $250 per day plus attorney fees.
The “right to be forgotten” has been the law in the European Union since 2014. Google says it has received more than 700,000 requests covering the removal of approximately 2 million links, and has taken down 43 percent of them. The company must evaluate each request individually, weighing the public’s right to public information against the requester’s right to, or wish for, privacy.
Saying “no” can lead to extended legal wrangling. The EU’s highest court is set to review the case of four individuals in France who unsuccessfully sought the delisting of links to “sensitive” information about them, including details of criminal convictions.
In February, Japan’s highest court ruled unanimously against an individual who wanted to be “forgotten.” Justice Kiyoko Okabe said the delisting of information “can be allowed only when the value of privacy protection significantly outweighs that of information disclosure.”
That illustrates the problem: The law is unknowable because it’s a judgment call every time. Google had a policy of refusing requests to take down information about criminal records, but in May an appellate court in the Netherlands ordered the company to remove links to details about an attorney’s 2012 conviction on weapons charges.
In the U.S., where freedom of speech and the press are written in plain language in the Constitution but the right to privacy is not, laws like the one under consideration in New York are likely unconstitutional.
But these laws are misguided, regardless. Taking down links to public information is not the same as sealing a record. The information is still available. It’s just not easy or free to obtain.
Companies that sell data will still be able to collect and disseminate information on individuals and businesses, including derogatory information, for customers who can pay for it. Ordinary people and small businesses will be at a disadvantage.
And while Google has the resources to fight it out in courts around the globe, most website publishers are far…