Ever-changing trends on the Internet and developments in technology mean that laws surrounding data protection must adapt in order to protect both individuals and large companies. Over the past few years we have seen almost weekly conflicts between governments, organisations and users concerned about the protection of their personal information. We'll be looking at some of the current issues with Internet privacy and whether or not we can remain private in a digital world.

Russian MPs back law on internet data storage

A law passed in Russia, taking full effect in September 2016, will require citizens’ online data to be stored inside the country. The Russian parliament has argued that it is in the public’s best interest to have their data stored in Russia, rather than in the USA, where criminal hackers can access it. “Our entire lives are stored over there,” MP Vadin Dengim said. However, media users are worried that this is a method to silence government opposition on social media: in 2012, protesters used Twitter as a platform for voicing their concerns over the return of Vladimir Putin to power. Many now believe that Russia will create a censored version of the internet within its own borders, much like China or North Korea. This shows that under the guise of data protection, governments have great power of their citizen's information.

NSA snooping: Facebook reveals details of data requests

Facebook revealed that in June-December 2012, they received almost 10,000 requests for users’ data from the US government. The NSA’s reasoning was to find leads and evidence for issues from local crime to national security. Facebook lawyer Ted Ullyot said, “these requests run the gamut – from things like a local sheriff trying to find a missing child … to a national security official investigating a terrorist threat". Facebook added that the vast majority of its 1 billion+ members are under no threat of data invasion, and – while not revealing full information about how they responded to the NSA’s requests – claim that they have ‘aggressively’ protected their users’ data.

Do we have a Right to be Forgotten?

Current debate is focused on the EU’s ruling that individuals have a ‘Right to be Forgotten’ on Google. Essentially, if they think a search result linked with their name is no longer relevant and continually damaging to their reputation (even if true), then Google must remove that link. This debate began when Spanish citizen Mario Costeja González requested that Google remove the link to an article about the repossession of his home after he hit financial difficulties in 1998. González argued that the matter had been resolved years ago but was still visible every time his name was searched in Google – which meant his reputation was still adversely affected by it.

But while the new ruling may benefit individuals trying to move on from past mistakes, is it really in the public’s, or even Google’s, best interest for these links to be deleted? Here’s some points to consider:

The data is still out there

  • It is only the search results link that is removed by Google. The webpage will still remain online for those who know its permanent address. However, since Google is most internet users’ prime method of finding websites, this means that traffic towards these pages will be dramatically decreased.
  • Google does not have to remove every link to that page from every search result. They only remove the search terms requested. I.e. if you searched for ‘Mario Costeja González’ then the link to the article would not show up on his results. However, you might still be able to find it with searches like ‘house repossession Spain 1998’. This means that people looking for specific information will still be able to find it, but it’s unlikely that anybody searching for an individual’s name will stumble across the links.
  • Google sends an automated notice to publishers when links to their content are removed. But this means that publishers are likely to kick up a fuss about the damage to their traffic, which in turn could re-instigate interest surrounding the ‘irrelevant’ and ‘outdated’ articles. BBC’s Robert Peston has already written about his anger towards being ‘cast into oblivion.’ If the past has taught us anything, it’s that it’s almost impossible to completely remove anything from the internet – just look at what happened when Beyonce demanded that her unflattering Superbowl pictures be ‘deleted from the internet’!

Individual Rights vs. Public Interest

  • González argued, “I was fighting for the elimination of data that adversely affects people's honour, dignity and exposes their private lives". Individuals may be able to move on from links that could have undermined their professional image online – with insulting social media comments and inappropriate photographs being cited as examples.
  • Many are arguing that we have the right to know about the past mistakes of public figures. Justice Minister Simon Hughes argued that there is a public interest in keeping information online.  While a disgraced politician may want to move on from a scandal several years down the line, newspapers and voters build their opinions based on past performances, so many consider it dishonest to cover-up this information.

Google’s Opinion?

  • James Ball at The Guardian suggested that Google, who have had no say in the ruling, will be pleased about the media uproar, stating that this is giving them an unwanted policing role and undermines the search engine’s ability to providing a comprehensive list of results.
  • Legally, this also means that Google can no longer be seen as a ‘neutral intermediary’, as it is their decision to determine whether a link ought to be removed. The ruling was extremely vague about how long a result would remain ‘relevant’.
  • Google stated that as of July 3rd, they had already received upwards of 70,000 requests for links to be removed. With such a high volume, Google must consider the possibility of lawsuits when refusing requests for deletion, which could make it much easier for people to hide unfavourable information about themselves under the pretense that it is ‘damaging to their reputation'.

The jurisdiction of governments and organisations is still unclear, and indeed the understanding of how the Internet works is where problems and disputes arise. With advancements in technology comes adjustments. Even if tech companies and governments worked together, we may never fully see a solution on how to handle users' privacy.