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Google Says We Have a "Right to Know," But Really Just Wants the Right to Profit From Your Personal Information

AFP/Getty Images

Complaining about the recent decision of the European Court of Justice on the so-called “right to be forgotten,” Google's Eric Schmidt has invoked an intriguing legal defense to justify his company's aggressive business practices: the right to know. The court wants Google to allow users to indicate those search results for their names that are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” so that they can be removed from the search index. Arguing that the issue involves “a collision between the right to be forgotten and the right to know,” Schmidt wants us to believe that the court made an error while the nerdy wunderkinds at Google got the balance right on their first try. 

But what is this “right to know” that he speaks of? Who is entitled to it and who isn't? Consider any other business that does not have the luxury of using our collective infatuation with digital technology as a shield against regulation. What company wouldn't want to know more about prospective customers or employees? Banks or insurance companies would love to know everything about us: the more they know, the better for their business. 

For example, the knowledge that you drink coffee rather than kale juice in the morning would surely improve their ability to predict whether you might suffer a heart attack in the next five years—an extremely relevant bit of information for deciding whether to give you a loan or insurance and at what rates. One doesn't have to try very hard to discover what we drink at breakfast time. Such information is usually already available on Facebook and Instagram. Many clever companies have sprung up to make such information highly actionable. As Douglas Merrill, the former chief information officer of Google and the founder of ZestFinance, a start-up that looks at more than 80,000 data points to assess your suitability for credit, puts it: “All data is credit data.”  

From the perspective of finance institutions, this is undoubtedly true. But a world where all data is credit data is also a world where every decision that we take is marred by paranoia and anxiety over how it will affect our credit rating: only banks and spy agencies would want to live in that world. And they certainly don't have anything resembling “the right to know”—if by that right we mean unconditional and unconstrained access to any information they are capable of grabbing. Otherwise, ZestFinance would be using 800,000 data points, not 80,000. 

It's for this reason that some countries strive to prevent their lending institutions from incorporating data from social media into their decision-making. But such efforts are successful only when the decision-making process is itself subject to strict control. How does one enforce a law banning employers from looking up what their prospective employees are up to on social media? After all, one can still do it during off-hours and pretend that the decision not to hire a candidate was due to some other purely subjective factor.  

“A right to be forgotten” is a step toward achieving the intended goal behind such regulations but, instead of hoping that institutions would not abuse online information, we allow citizens to take measures into their own hands. Letting citizens remove—perhaps, temporarily—troubling aspects of their current and former lifestyle from search indexes is the least we can do.  

However, if we don't find it troubling to impose barriers on the data hunger of banks and insurance companies, why should we make an exception for search engines? Google's model is not that different: collect as much information as possible, sort it out in the most useful (and hence profitable) way, and make money. 

Of course, it's ordinary users—me and you—who get to reap the benefits of this knowledge-organization effort, so, predictably, more people sympathize with Google rather than with, says, banks. But is it really a good reason to believe that a model of knowledge organization that happens to favor Google's business interests is also the one that favors the public interest? Of course not: Google works the way it does not because another search engine is impossible but because we have failed to come up with a more humane, permissive, and forgiving vision for organizing our collective knowledge. It doesn't mean that such a vision doesn't exist—only that Google has done its best to convince us that theirs is the only one on offer. 

Since Google is in the information business, any efforts to regulate it are inevitably represented as censorship—as Eric Schmidt's remark on the right to know reveals. But of course, the information in question is not eliminated in its entirely. One can still find it, albeit at a higher cost—it is just made less visible. The motto of "The Circle," the company at the center of Dave Eggers' eponymous dystopian novel about a high-tech giant with an eerie resemblance to Google, is “Secrets are lies. Caring is sharing. Privacy is theft.” Well, to those three we can now add the fourth: Regulation is censorship. If a company like ZestFinance, the one that believes that “all data is credit data,” pulled a similar rhetorical trick, we would surely have a good laugh. When Google does it, however, its words are treated with the kind of seriousness afforded to sages and philosophers, not rapacious corporations.  

Eric Schmidt keeps quiet about it but Google violates “the right to know” all the time. For example, it already removes search results from its index when requests come various content providers—publishers, film studios, music records—who have their own legal avenue for demanding that links to copyrighted materials be removed from Google. Thus, the convenient defense that what the Luxembourg court is demanding is technically impossible simply does not hold: Google already does something that is very much like it.  

But if this avenue is open to copyright holders, most of them companies, why shouldn't the same avenue be open to citizens whose demands are not any less legitimate than those of copyright holders? And why is Eric Schmidt not concerned with the “right to know” in the latter case? Is it because the content industry is much better organized—it has lobbyists that are as powerful as Google’s—than ordinary citizens? 

That Google is complying with the court's ruling is not enough; what matters is how it does so. Whenever Google removes links to pirated movies or books, it usually places a disclaimer at the bottom of the page, informing users of how many links were removed and why. It's tempting to think that a similar notice system could work for the “right to be forgotten” but, in fact, it could lead to a disaster much worse than the current situation. 

Would you really hire somebody if their search page indicated that certain unpleasant and reputation-damaging links—the ones you cannot check—have been removed from it? Knowing that someone is a deviant without knowing what exactly their deviant behavior consists of is often worse than the precise knowledge of what it is that they have done: our imagination can be much wilder than reality itself. A notice system would do more harm than good here. 

The right to know how Google's business interests shape its rhetoric and technical practice would, indeed, be a right to know worth promoting.