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Dilemma of balancing privacy with right to know


Information highway: Google

Information highway: Google

Information highway: Google

On the publicity and political front, the Google 'Right to be Forgotten' issue has gone relatively quiet. That's the nature of news, I suppose; not everything can burn hot all the time.

But the effects of the ruling multiply daily, usually under the radar.

This week a timely story in the Sunday Times NI edition did us a favour by noting which BBC NI material has been 'disappeared' by Google thanks to the Court of Justice of the EU.

Google's removal of the articles from its search index doesn't mean they have been removed from the BBC archive.

But Google handles up to 70% of search traffic, so the material will be largely invisible.

BBC Online managing editor Neil McIntosh published in a blog post a long list of BBC stories removed from Google's index. He said he wanted clarity and to contribute to the public debate, and has received a fair bit of negativity for his trouble.

Thanks to him, however, we now know that removed articles of NI interest include a report of a drunken murderer who killed his best friend in Newtownards in a fit of jealousy; a missing person case involving a woman from Co Down (she later turned up safe and well) and report about a case involving a PSNI officer cleared of beating an armed robber with a baton during an arrest.

Another removed article was about a loyalist pipe bomb and shootings in Carrickfergus blamed on tensions between UDA factions.

Yet another directed people to articles about nine men who appeared in court in 2001 in connection with alleged cross-border fuel smuggling; another featured information about alleged dissident republicans accused at Dublin's Special Criminal Court over a bomb factory linked to 40 incidents.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: also removed was a post by people tracing their ancestry via Your Place And Mine, a BBC NI webpage.

There are, of course, serious issues here and it is a complex area of the law with a wider background than just the famous Google case.

Supporters insist it reflects the desires of individuals to "determine the development of their life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past".

The problem is that through the original case, known colloquially as Google v Costeja, the European Court of Justice has raised a desire to be forgotten into a human right, thus slamming headlong into several other universally-enshrined global rights including freedom of expression.

(It also tends to undermine victims' rights and the concept of the deterrence of crime.)

Additionally, the quality of archives, the truthfulness or reliability of information found during search is compromised. An internet riddled with "memory holes" is of limited use.

If the web is to remain a valuable tool, its completeness and integrity, and the ability of search engines to index it, must stay as intact as legally and morally possible: due diligence, corruption investigations, academic research and much more all require it.

Part of the problem with all of this is that there is no proper transparency or solid set of rules surrounding the Right to be Forgotten and Google's enforcement methodology on this issue.

People everywhere deserve reasonable privacy in their lives, but if legitimate journalism and proper scrutiny are threatened, then the pendulum has swung too far.

Belfast Telegraph