Has our right to privacy been forgotten?
18th Oct 2014 | 10:00
Your online privacy is being squeezed by corporations and government
Has our right to privacy been forgotten? It sometimes seems so. Theresa May and other authoritarians seem to want to ensure that everything is remembered, whilst Google often seem aggrieved that it should be possible for anything to be forgotten. Our privacy – our privacy rights – seem to be the only thing that is forgotten.
And yet, right now, both Google and what might loosely be called the intelligence community are (at least at the surface level) consulting over how best to take privacy into account. Both, however, are doing so very much on their own terms, and the level to which they are really “consulting” with the people needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
For Google, the main current issue is the misleadingly named “right to be forgotten,” insofar as that right emerged from the ruling of the European Court of Justice ruling in the Google Spain case. Google’s reaction to the ruling has been swift but far from uncontested. Indeed, many have suggested that Google has been deliberately overreacting in order to make it look as though the ruling is absurd, authoritarian or unworkable – or even all three.
Stories of what look like obviously inappropriate delistings have been appearing in the press – criminals hiding their crimes and so forth. Journalists have been outraged that their stories can apparently no longer be found – though very often the stories about these delisted stories are not quite to be what they seem.
What’s more, now that Google has released data about the kinds of URLs that have been delisted, it really doesn’t look as though journalistic stories are the main point. Top of the list of sites for which URLs have been removed is Facebook, whilst second is profileengine.com, a site which among other things archives old social media profiles, including Facebook profiles which the users believe they have actually deleted.
Given that one of the drivers of the original idea of a right to be forgotten on the internet, as pushed by European Commissioner Viviane Reding in 2010, was how difficult it was to delete your social media accounts, it looks on the face of it as though it might actually be working.
Parallel to these, in more ways than one, theIntelligence and Security Committee of Parliament – the body with oversight over MI5, MI6 and GCHQ – has been running its own Privacy and Security Inquiry, and after taking written evidence early this year, has begun its own hearings: both formal hearings with some That, however, is not how it appears in the press, and neither, on the surface, is it how Google seems to want it to appear – and why their own consultative process is well under way.
Squeezed on both sides
The European tour of the Advisory Council to Google on the Right to be Forgotten rumbled into London this week, with a public meeting on the October 16. It’s the sixth of seven meetings: it’s already been to Madrid, Rome, Paris, Warsaw and Berlin, and after London it will finish the tour, appropriately enough, in Brussels. The hearings have been precisely set up, orchestrated even. The Advisory Council was carefully selected, as, it appears, have been the speakers at the meetings and the terms upon which they speak. It is easy, however, to be too cynical about this – it might be that Google is genuinely trying to find an appropriate balance here. Only time will tell.
Parallel to these, in more ways than one, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament – the body with oversight over MI5, MI6 and GCHQ – has been running its own Privacy and Security Inquiry, and after taking written evidence early this year, has begun its own hearings: both formal hearings with some witnesses and ’round table discussions’ with others. Though on the surface very different, there are some strong similarities. Carefully selected committees, supposedly independent of the bodies about which they report, taking evidence from a screened set of experts, on terms set out by the committees, with purely advisory capabilities – and the distinct sense that there’s an overall unspoken agenda.
It feels very much as though the most desirable result for Google would be a removal of the whole “right to be forgotten,” and that the intelligence services would really like us to just trust them to get on with it, and what they mostly want is to rebuild any lost trust. The result is that we – and our privacy – are still being squeezed. It’s easy to see why: both businesses and governments benefit (or at least believe that they benefit) from having as much of our data as possible. They also know it – and know how to play the game, as the orchestration of the various hearings demonstrates.
They know how to use each other for their own benefit too. As far back as 2007, Google’s Peter Fleischer was using the now-defunct Data Retention Directive as a bargaining tool in Google’s battle with the Article 29 Working party over the length that Google could hold search logs. In a round table event, David Bickford, former legal director of MI5 and MI6 made the converse and complimentary argument that if corporations like Google could gather, retain and analyse all this data, it would be perverse to place more restrictions and controls over the way that the intelligence services gather, retain and analyse data.
On the intelligence side, the squeeze is really on, driven in part by the current anxiety over the so-called Islamic State. Fresh from her success in driving through the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act – with the aid of the authoritarian wings of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats – Home Secretary Theresa May has now announced her plan to bring back the unlamented Communications Data Bill – better known as the Snoopers’ Charter.
So we have Google trying to persuade people to surrender the so-called right to be forgotten, while the intelligence services seek ever more freedom to gather and hold data. Privacy is being squeezed from both directions. However, both sides are at least trying to make it look as though privacy is being considered. A few years ago, neither would have done so. That much is progress – but it is only a small step, and we need much more.