Hundreds of millions of people across Europe will be forced to change the way they use the internet, a key Google adviser says.
The era of freely available information is now over in Europe, warns Professor Luciano Floridi, who has been appointed by the 232 billion ($458 billion) search engine firm to find out how it should comply with a landmark ruling that allows people to ask for personal information to be taken down.
His warning comes as it was revealed 12,000 requests were made yesterday from people across Europe demanding to have personal details removed from Google. More than 1500 of these are believed to have come from people in the UK who were looking to take advantage of a service launched by Google to make it easier for people to apply for personal data to be removed.
The move follows a European court’s ruling last month that gave people the “right to be forgotten“; convicted criminals are among those trying to hide links to stories from online search engines. A former MP who is seeking re-election is another of the thousands who have approached Google.
In an exclusive interview, Floridi, who is professor of philosophy and the ethics of information at Oxford University, said the ruling has “raised the bar so high that the old rules of the internet no longer apply”.
The judgment found that 500 million internet users across Europe had the right to request Google remove from its search results information that they believed to be damaging or a breach of privacy. However, he warned it could place even more power into the hands of Google.
“People would be screaming if a powerful company suddenly decided what information could be seen by what people, when and where,” he said.
“That is the consequence of this decision. A private company now has to decide what is in the public interest.”
He also said the main beneficiaries of the judgment were “reputation management companies”.
“They now have the power to ask for embarrassing information about their clients to be removed.”
Floridi said the judgment by the European Court of Justice was so revolutionary it would have the same effect on the digital world as Dick Fosbury of the “Fosbury flop” had on high jumping.
Floridi said: “That was completely counter-intuitive but was also a moment of genius. We need something like that for the internet.”
The Italian philosopher recognised the internet caused unacceptable intrusions into people’s privacy and that the status quo could not continue. However, he said: “I have spent too much time in the UK not to come down on the side of freedom of expression, the right to know.”
Experts help with ethics
Some of the world’s best-known internet and free speech experts are to help Google find a balance between personal privacy and the public’s right to know.
Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, and Frank La Rue, UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, are among the independent experts who have agreed to join the new advisory committee.
It is set to hold a series of hearings this year in an effort to solve the conflict between an individual’s “right to be forgotten” and the public’s right to know, and is due to report its findings by early 2015.
Others who have joined the committee to look at the ethical and legal challenges posed by the internet include Dr Luciano Floridi, a professor of ethics and philosophy at Oxford University, Professor Peggy Valcke, a media expert at the University of Leuven’s law school, and Jose Luis Piar, a former Spanish data protection agency director. The panel will be headed by Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman, and David Drummond, the company’s general counsel.