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Debunking Jimbo: Slippery Google tries to evade European privacy

'It'll be real bad for news sites', when we pay the legal bills. Er, hang on?

What's the equivalent of Godwin's Law, but for China not Nazi Germany?

Wales: Without question. Without question.

Y'know I've never seen something like this from um, Western democracies. From democracies, generally. We have the same kind of rules that apply in er, er China. Google is not allowed to link to certain things in China.

Here Wales compares Europe’s balanced ruling - which must include freedom of expression - to the authoritarian censorship in China. Hysterical much, Jimbo? It’s actually a comparison many Europeans find distasteful - particularly since genuine repression and state censorship - from, for example, the STASI - is a living memory.

Wales: I believe Google's most likely response is going to be very transparent. I'm going to encourage them to be very transparent about what they are no longer linking to. Um. Which is what they do with, y'know, they share certain things with the site Chilling Effects, and so on.

When Google removes a link because of a copyright notice - something it originally said it couldn’t do, just as in this case - it provides an indirect link instead. However it's highly unlikely that Google can legally publish a direct link to information in this way: it still constitutes a link. Wales hasn’t thought it through.

But hold on. Marr wants to believe The Internet Is Broken - and he isn’t going to give up.

Marr: What is this going do to the price of the internet? If companies are going to spend more time sort of censoring and removing things and engaging in legal battles as seems inevitable?

Wales: It's not just a matter of the internet companies and the costs associated with that. We also have to be concerned with newspapers, who now find that Google will not link to certain stories if they're scared about it. And they're going to have to go through a legal process. Newspapers are financially in dire straits all the time anyway. Given the fragility of the free press, I think we should really step back and take another look.

The ruling clearly doesn’t apply to newspapers, who have a journalistic exemption. And indeed, if people stop bothering news sites to get their name's Google search results cleaned up and start bothering Google instead, that will be a good thing for news operations*. But Wales wants newspaper editors to think they’ll lose money.

Marr: Do you think this is workable, this attempt to seize power over the internet?

Wales: No, I don't think so. Because for one thing it only applies in Europe, but the internet is inherently global. When Google censors search results in China, they used to, they don't any more because they withdrew from China ... There are many many search engines who don't have any presence in Europe and won't abide by these rules in Europe.

There are more reasonable viewpoints out there. In the FT, Robert Shrimsley raised the example of “slut-shaming”, the Slane Girl case, who can easily be identified from photographs after an indiscretion was photographed at a pop festival. “People do stupid things and few merit perpetual global humiliation”.

Writing in the San Jose Mercury, Michael Fertik explained the process in detail - anticipating many of the points Wales made ten days later. He concluded:

"What's really at stake here is power: whether we believe that we, in this digital age where information lasts forever, should have some measure of agency or if we should cede our power entirely to the machine. I’m with the court: Human dignity is important, precious and deserves legal standing.”

Unfortunately such views were not reflected in Jimbo and Marr's one-sided discussion. And it's particularly odd that Marr, who has used European law to take out a "super-injunction" protecting his own privacy, should now forget the value of privacy rights to people slightly less wealthy than himself.

As Shrimsley reminded us, Google "is led by people who resist restraints on the web and have little regard for privacy. It has a smart lobbying operation and believes the appeal of its technology will protect it from lawmakers.”

Marr concluded by thanking Wales for Wikipedia - "which you created, and which changed the world”. ®


* We know this from personal experience at The Register, where we routinely receive everything from grovelling pleas to legal or even violent threats aimed at getting one of our articles removed so that it will in due course disappear from a Google search of somebody's name. It will be nice when Google has to lawyer up rather than us, since we did the work of finding and publishing the information in the first place and all they did was put ads next to a clip of it. - Ed

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