How 'Right to Forget' Could Hurt Google and Other Startups
A couple of weeks ago, Europe's highest court delivered what could become a critical blow to Google, Facebook, and many other tech companies: the right to forget. Under the ruling, EU consumers could ask a search engine to remove the links to pages with information they wanted to bury.
Privacy has become a big issue in recent years. The NSA was found spying on numbers of citizens; corporations use personal data to inform their marketing; and security breaches--which have almost become a weekly event--have only exacerbated the problem. The EU ruling reflects' consumers' growing concern.
From a business standpoint, this could become a disaster. I'll begin with the least problematic outcome, the need to remove information. On the surface, nothing will be lost, as publishers won't be told to remove anything people object to. But if you had a filing cabinet where nothing was put into order, you'd have to go through each document to find what you wanted. And if you couldn't find something, it might as well not exist.
Search engines like Bing and Google bring order to the vast filing cabinet known as the Internet. But even then there is too much to sort through. They make money off selling ads that are tied to search terms, but if the information isn't there then what use are the ads? Search terms for individuals don't often turn up in searches, so Google won't likely lose much revenue over those.
However, the danger is that the ruling may set a precedent, and not just for users. Companies could win the right to contest the accuracy of reviews, as well as stories that give bad impressions. And how long would something need to exist before it's considered "in the past"? In the future, more information may be erased.
A Feel-Good Web
There is also the danger of creating a sanitized Web. People search the Internet to find controversial things and the news often centers on controvery. When people search, they search to find as much as they can, and so do businesses. To the degree that such information is censored, all that's left will be happy talk, or a feel-good Web, which isn't exactly informative. The more useless the information, the less people will use it, and for a search engine that could mean lower revenue.
The High Cost of Removal
Google has already set up a Web form to allow people in Europe to submit links for removal. But submission of a request to remove isn't the same as automatic removal. Even though proposed EU regulations effectively expand the scope of information that someone could want removed, Google will still need review the requests and that isn't going to come cheap. Someone will need to review each request to make sure it's legit.
Will Behavioral Marketing Follow?
A right to be forgotten won't just apply to search engines. Many companies have stored personal information and use it. Social networks like Facebook may be forced to drop stored information, which might include health issues, porn habits, or anything else deemed unsavory. It could even extend to one's credit or work history.
Also, even if they're not links, information is still being indirectly sent to marketers, who target people based on their behavior. All companies that put information on the Web may be asked to scrub their databases of offending information.
The right to be forgotten regulation is something many companies will want to forget. But the reality won't disappear.
ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist
Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.