On Its Own, Europe Backs Web Privacy Fights
By SUZANNE DALEY, Published: August 9, 2011
MADRID — All 90 people wanted information deleted from the Web. Among them was a victim of domestic violence who discovered that her address could easily be found through Google. Another, well into middle age now, thought it was unfair that a few computer key strokes could unearth an account of her arrest in her college days.
They might not have received much of a hearing in the United States, where Google is based. But here, as elsewhere in Europe, an idea has taken hold —individuals should have a “right to be forgotten” on the Web.
Spain’s government is now championing this cause. It has ordered Google to stop indexing information about 90 citizens who filed formal complaints with its Data Protection Agency. The case is now in court and being watched closely across Europe for how it might affect the control citizens will have over information they posted, or which was posted about them, on the Web.
Whatever the ruling in the Spanish case, the European Union is also expected to weigh in with new “right to be forgotten” regulations this fall. Viviane Reding, the European Union’s justice commissioner, has offered few details of what she has in mind. But she has made clear she is determined to give privacy watchdogs greater power.
“I cannot accept that individuals have no say over their data once it has been launched into cyberspace,” she said last month. She said she had heard the argument that more control was impossible, and that Europeans should “get over it.”
But, Ms. Reding said, “I don’t agree.”
On this issue, experts say, Europe and the United States have largely parted company.
“What you really have here is a trans-Atlantic clash,” said Franz Werro, who was born and raised in Switzerland and is now a law professor at Georgetown University. “The two cultures really aren’t going in the same direction when it comes to privacy rights. “
For instance, in the United States, Mr. Werro said, courts have consistently found that the right to publish the truth about someone’s past supersedes any right to privacy. Europeans, he said, see things differently: “In Europe you don’t have the right to say anything about anybody, even if it is true.”
Mr. Werro says Europe sees the need to balance freedom of speech and the right to know against a person’s right to privacy or dignity, concepts often enshrined in European laws. The European perspective was shaped by the way information was collected and used against individuals under dictators like Franco and Hitler and under Communism. Government agencies routinely compiled dossiers on citizens as a means of control.
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