Two things happened at Google yesterday. One of them grabbed the headlines today (quite rightly); the other rather slipped under the radar by comparison - and that’s really, really unfortunate for all of us.
The first was the ‘point-finger-and-laugh-derisively’ moment when Google EMEA boss Matt Brittin announced to a panel of legislators in the UK Parliament that he doesn’t know how much he gets paid!
To open mockery, he told the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC):
I don’t have the figure.
That response earned him the humiliating response from a (somewhat grandstanding) Chair of the PAC Meg Hillier MP that his reply showed that he:
lived on another planet.
Actually it wasn’t the most laugh-out loud moment. That must be reserved for Dame Lin Homer, chief executive of HMRC for the past four years, who happily admitted that she would not consider herself a “deep expert” on tax, stating:
I am the least tax expert.
There was a running gag in the UK political satire Yes Minister that civil servants were never put in charge of anything that they actually knew anything about, in order to preserve the cult of the generalist so that no-one could be expected to take the blame for failures that required expertise. These days, that joke’s more than worn thin.
An equally bad Google joke came with the search giant caving in to demands from data privacy zealots to extend the global reach of the odious Right to be Forgotten.
Following a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in 2014, Google - and other search engine providers - were compelled to consider requests from European citizens to rewrite history by removing embarrassing information from search results.
To date, Google’s had requests to remove 1.4 million links and has taken down around 40% of them, nearly 400,000 links.
But this erasure only applied to European sites, such as google.co.uk or google.fr. If the same search was run using google.com, the ‘missing’ results could still be viewed, causing some data protection authorities, such as that in France, to demand that the European Right to be Forgotten rules had to be applied to non-European Union regions, such as the US.
Google has to date - quite rightly - resisted this pressure. But the firm has suddenly offered up a compromise. This would mean that a search conducted using a non-EU version of Google would block erased links if the IP address associated with the search comes from an EU country.
So, if you run the same searches in the UK and the US, two different sets of results will appear - one the full version, one the edited version of reality.
In other words, one continent will have a completely different understanding of history than the other. So much for technology creating a level playing field…
This might not be enough for the more zealous data privacy authorities. The French Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL), head of a working group of EU privacy regulation authorities, hasn’t exactly jumped at the idea, stating that:
The issue of territorial scope requires careful thought.
It’s certainly going to be a divisive move if it gets approved. On the one hand, privacy activists will be pleased. Renate Samson, Chief Executive of Big Brother Watch, told media:
The move by Google to ensure 'Right to be Forgotten' across European versions of Google offers reassurance to the thousands of regular, ordinary citizens who have sought the right for inaccurate or out-of-date content about them to be blocked from Google's searches.
Whilst Right to be Forgotten remains a controversial issue, it is a key part of the new European General Data Protection Regulations set to be in place within the next couple of years. Google's move therefore is a necessary step in the direction of improved data protection.
But others argue that Google shouldn’t have the power to decide what people are able to hide from their past at all, never mind having a situation where different areas of world are able to have different levels of awareness.
French Caldwell, chief evangelist at MetricStream and former Gartner fellow, says:
Google is usually the first place anyone goes to look up something or someone. Likewise, you can bet it’s the first point of reference for potential employers and business partners. Google and other search engines have profiles on virtually everyone, with masses of content readily available, even if it’s dated and no longer relevant to someone’s life or career today – this is especially true for public figures. The question is whether people should be able to walk away from their past, and we’re in the remarkable position today where it is up to the search engine to make that decision.
What bothers me is that we’re ceding tremendous power to Google. Google isn’t a court and it isn’t a government, but we’re giving it executive and judicial powers to decide what information should or should not be available. The truth is, Google is already deciding what’s important online. Its search results are based on a user’s profile and behaviours; that’s power enough right there.
The Right to be Forgotten is an appalling ruling from the out-of-control European Court of Justice that sets a terrifying Orwellian precedent for the manipulation of history by vested interests, all too often unpleasant ones.
Google’s extension of its acquiescence to this dreadful practice is to be greatly regretted. Given that it comes at a time when the European Commission is talking tougher on a wider inquiry into the firm’s tax practices, I do hope that no-one inside the company has had the daft idea that it might be a politically good idea to try to appease the Commission over Right to be Forgotten.
Because the one thing you can be certain of with the EC is that you give them an inch - sorry, a centimetre - and they’ll move on to a kilometer.
But then this is a company whose European head doesn’t know how much he’s paid, so who knows what sort of thinking goes on inside it.