The Internet lit up today with news that a French court Paris's Tribunal de Grande Instance has ordered Google to find a way to remove recurring links to nine images of former Formula One chief Max Mosely’s participation in a 2008 orgy with prostitutes that were first publishing in the now defunct British tabloid News of the World. The paper had published an article that intimated that Mosley had organized a “sick Nazi orgy.”
As has been widely noted, Mosley has acknowledged that he engaged in sadomasochistic activity with the five women and paid them 2,500 sterling ($4,000), but denied the orgy was Nazi-themed. However, in a case with serious international repercussions, Mosely initiated a civil suit in January of this year against Google demanding that the images be removed and cited Google’s inability to prevent and police reposting as a reason for him to be awarded damages. Google maintained that it is merely a platform for presenting information and while it can remove images from its web site, it cannot and should not be responsible for the activities of others.
The court rules against Google
In a four-page ruling that came down on the side of Mosely, Judge Marie Mongin ordered Google to "remove and cease, for a period of five years beginning two months after this decision, the appearance of nine images identified by Max Mosley in the Google Images search engine results." Google, which did not say whether it planned to appeal, was ordered to pay one euro in damages and Mosley 5,000 euros ($6,700) costs.
For its part, Google’s Associate General Counsel Daphne Keller issued a statement that noted that to comply with the court’s mandate the company would have to build a new software filter to continuously catch new versions of posted images people wish to be removed. Keller noted: "This is a troubling ruling with serious consequences for free expression and we will appeal it…Ev0en though we already provide a fast and effective way of removing unlawful material from our search index, the French court has instructed us to build what we believe amounts to a censorship machine." She continued by stating, “The company's existing system to remove content that breaches individuals' privacy laws is "an effective way of helping Mr. Mosley."
In should also be noted in regards to this matter that in a blog in September, Google posted that it had already removed hundreds of images of the Mosely party in line with its process for helping people delete items if they have been shown to violate the law.
2014 will be “The Year of Identity Matters”
Aside from its sensationalism based on the celebrity involved and the sordid subject matter, the case is just another indication of the fact that we have reached a tipping point in all things related to identity. It may be early to be making end of the year predictions, but it is a safe bet that 2014 will be a watershed year and is likely to go down as “The Year of Identity Matters!” No matter where one looks, Identity broadly defined is an issue. I will cite just a few examples.
First, in the area of enterprise security, IT experts agree that “Identity is the new perimeter.” The barbarians have breached the gates and authentication is the new last line of protection. In addition, who has access to what, when, where, why and how, has been in the headlines daily thanks to the rolling thunder that is the Snowden revelations.
Second, permissions regarding the terms and conditions of using personal information by Internet Service Providers (ISP) and their selling it to third-parties has become a bone of contention around the world. Depending on how things go, especially in Europe which has strict privacy laws that are in the process of possibly becoming even stricter, restrictive use of personal information could be the most disruptive force on the future of e-commerce. In fact, in terms of disrupting ISP business models it has potential impact greater than net neutrality and local sales tax enforcement.
Third, as I have written about previously, there is a draft law circulating in Europe, being intensely lobbied against by tech companies, to give consumers greater rights to ask that content they want find objectionable be removed from the Internet. Interestingly archivists have weighed in on the side of not allowing us to delete things. They argue that there is an overriding public interest in memorializing public records like birth and death certificates. They also contend that destruction of our online diaries (Facebook postings, Twitter feeds, Instagrams, etc.) would fundamentally alter historians’ abilities to have first-party knowledge of the time in which the entries were made.
Fourth, I have raised the issue that there is a really interesting an unresolved issue over who actually owns my identity. Clearly, our likes and dislikes, opinions, places we visit, things we buy, the speed at which we do things and reams of psychographic information that are all now fair game for “big data” profiling that is supposed to help sellers make our life as buyers easier is very, very, valuable. The question is what is mine, and what is yours, when it comes to identity especially when I have not given permission for its use even if it has leaked into the commons, or been posted by somebody who wishes me harm. I actually believe along with permission when various parts of my identity are being used for commercial purposes should entitle me to payment from those using it, but that is the subject for another day.
What is more troubling, and relates to issues raised in the Mosely case are the ones regarding identity ownership and the right to erase what is objectionable. This is a very problematic area starting with the definition of objectionable, and extending to the responsibility and accountability of those hosting the information. The use by employers for instance as part of background checks to gain access to our personal postings has made it so even the slightest transgression dating back decades could come back to haunt us. It is almost as if we have entered an age where forgiveness is about to become obsolete given the probability of arbitrary fact filtering in a review of our lives as seen through the prism of online activities.
image via shutterstock
I happen to believe that we should have a right to anonymity, and hence a right to delete. These rights should extend beyond the narrow view of the tech companies as to enabling us to delete only those things that are in violation of the law. It is as much an impetus driving the desire to toughen the privacy laws in Europe as the government snooping revelations. While I am sensitive to the needs to preserve specific types of information, I actually think that Google inadvertently has hit on the answer, although they find it objectionable. There should be filtering mechanisms that constantly are looking to expunge those items we want deleted from the Internet forever.
Speaking from experience, the value of deleting is important
As an editor at TMC, I have been asked on numerous occasions by those who for whatever reason have had misinformation published about them that is still showing up on search to remove it from our archives so the search engines cannot find it. Some instances have involved mere misprints, but others have involved court cases where somebody was accused by a malcontent of something which made headlines, but later was found to be totally unfounded but unfortunately was not picked up by any news organization. What I can tell you is that the hunt to track down all instances of misinformation can takes months and even years. I can also tell you that it can and does ruins people’s lives.
For those who argue that freedom of expression is fundamental to the continued value of the Internet, the notion of expression being absolute is what is troubling. Just as people do not have a right to scream fire in a crowded theater when there is none, there should not be an absolutist stance that whatever is on the Internet stays there in perpetuity no matter what.
How all of this ends is a mystery. What we can hope for is that it fans the flames of a need for policy makers to change laws and set boundaries that are in line with the needs of all of us, in our commercial as well as personal modes, when we are online. Sensational as the Mosely case has become, what happens next on identity matters is what really matters.
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