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Why I decided to boycott Google’s sham ‘Right to be Forgotten’ road show

Witch Trial

 By Simon Davies

Earlier this week, in a futile moment of wild optimism, I emailed a prominent Google executive to ask if I could join an expert panel for the road show events that the company is currently rolling out across Europe to fuel dissent about a legal principle called the Right to be Forgotten (RTBF).

Google created the slick road show in response to a recent judgement by the European Court of Justice that defines the rights of citizens, in certain narrow circumstances, to limit access to online information that relates to them. Within that narrow spectrum citizens can request the disabling of links to inaccurate, inadequate, excessive, irrelevant or outdated personal content (subject to a series of public interest tests).

these are not parliamentary hearings; they’re partisan lobbying spectacles by a wealthy global company with a disastrously bad track record on privacy issues.

Even before the judgment, Google vehemently opposed RTBF, most vocally on grounds of both principle and practicality, but more subtly on grounds of cost to the company.

The “principle” championed by Google, however, is almost exclusively one of free publication, not the right to privacy. And yet the court talked in terms of a congruence of the two rights. The hostile position taken by the company and many media organisations is thus too simplistic. This is a complex equation where the interplay of both rights needs to be protected.

In those circumstances I figured Google might see the value in me being an invited privacy expert. After all, the company seems to be struggling to find such people, given the preponderance of media freedom and innovation advocates on its panels.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be. It took the advertising giant less than twenty minutes to dismiss my suggestion.

The decision did not surprise me in the least. Last week I told Bloomberg News that the road show is “a cross between a lobbying exercise and a brazen publicity stunt”. While there are two or three open minds on the company’s advisory group that oversees the road show, the process is fundamentally skewed against privacy in favour of publication rights.

Even anti-censorship activists have come around to the view that Google has misrepresented the European court judgment. Material will not be removed or censored, only partially de-indexed at a regional level in accordance with existing data protection law – and even then only in exceptional circumstances. Google already removes millions of pages without the level of accountability and process required under the RTBF provisions. 

Google’s strategy intends to interfere not with a political decision (which some people might regard as open-season for such lobbying) but to destabilise a decision by Europe’s highest court that confirms legal rights for citizens. There’s something sinister in that modus operandi.

On another level, the impact of this ruling will have minimal impact on Google’s business model. But even if costs were to be a significant factor, Google surely must respect the Rule of Law and accept the conditions of it being allowed to operate in Europe.

It’s of no small concern that the events are being heavily stage managed. Rather than being open public consultation fora, Google has required participants to pre-register their arguments weeks in advance. This model is unsustainable and wrong.

The kick-off meeting in Madrid yesterday set alarm bells ringing for some observers. There was little or no consultation in the process. Instead, the company had chosen a cross-examination model in which the main advisory group questioned the pre-selected experts. The audience appeared to serve little purpose other than as a background image for the cameras.

The selection of experts also raises questions about the integrity of the road show. The Rome event, which takes place today, will hear from eight invited experts, most of whom have a track record in media freedom and innovation rather than privacy. No privacy or rights NGOs were included on the panel.

It’s not even certain whether the road show is tactically clever. The events have already started to annoy Europe’s privacy regulators. Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, who heads France’s privacy watchdog and the WP29 group of EU national data protection authorities, told Reuters she was sceptical about the Google initiative, which she described as part of a “PR war” on an issue that was important to the company’s business strategy.

“Google is trying to set the terms of the debate,” she said. “They want to be seen as being open and virtuous, but they handpicked the members of the council, will control who is in the audience, and what comes out of the meetings.”

It’s quite possible Google predicted such charges, which may in part explain the solemnity of its proceedings, much of which gives the appearance of a parliamentary hearing.

But these are not parliamentary hearings; they’re partisan lobbying spectacles by a wealthy global company with a disastrously bad track record on privacy issues.

Most important of all, Google’s strategy intends to interfere not with a political decision (which some people might regard as open-season for such lobbying) but to destabilise a decision by Europe’s highest court that confirms legal rights for citizens. There’s something sinister in that modus operandi.

Taken together, these aspects are deeply disquieting. I thought long and hard about whether to attend any of the meetings, and have decided my presence as a passive audience member would be an affront to privacy advocacy.

Google suggested that it might put my name forward as a candidate for expert status at a future event, but no thanks. This process is far too compromised and polluted to achieve any salvation. On the basis of Google’s current tactics, I’d advise everyone who cares about privacy not to dignify these meetings with your presence.