The public has a right to know. Individuals have a right to privacy. The common good is served by both these contradictory statements, so someone has to decide how to balance them when they come into conflict. When it comes to internet search, the European Union’s Court of Justice has given the job to search engine providers such as Google. In a way, that’s a good call.
The court decided in May that some internet links deserve to be “forgotten” because certain data can over time become “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”. The search operators were held responsible, in the first instance, for judging whether to grant requests to remove links.
The court’s decision creates a mess, because it provides no practical guidance. Still, it made a clear step forward in the endless debate between “the legitimate interest of internet users” and “the right to protection of personal data” by recognising that search engines have changed the meaning of privacy.
In the pre-internet era, much information that was officially public was, in practice, more or less private. Facts or allegations which could only be found after a long search of newspaper or police archives, or after asking acquaintances for photographs or diary entries, were unlikely to influence hiring decisions, business transactions or general impressions except for the most tenacious of detectives.
Youthful indiscretions might haunt a celebrity – like the rumors of affairs that dogged President Bill Clinton which one staffer dubbed “bimbo eruptions” – but the common man could pretty much count on anonymity, even if he had previously achieved fleeting local notoriety.