The EU ruling on the right to be forgotten seems to have opened up a rather nasty little can of worms, and I can't see that it's going to be getting any better in the near future. The Supreme Court of British Columbia issued a temporary injunction last week, ordering Google to delete websites not only from the Canadian version of Google, but across the world as well. (The background to this story is about a company that wants to stop a rival selling gadgets that were created as a result of stolen trade secrets. This company wants Google to stop linking to the rival sites - more than 300 of them.)
This is of course an attempt to impose Canadian law on the rest of the world, but it didn't appear to bother the judge in the slightest. It's been suggested her decision was inspired at least partly by the European ruling ordering Google to abide by requests from people to be forgotten in the search results.
So we're entering difficult waters here; could the Russian courts for example rule that Google should delete all of the gay and lesbian sites because they don't like them? What about a Middle Eastern country demanding that Google remove all references to Jewish websites? This whole issue is very quickly turning into a mess - results from search engines are already full of holes for one reason or another, and this isn't going to make searching for content any easier in the future.
There are of course plenty of times when websites have to be taken down because of the material that they have published, but the point here is that it's the website that is targetted, not the search engine. Once the search engine - the pointer to the content is attacked (and I know that's strong language, but I think that it's appropriate), what next? Will libraries have to do the same thing - it's not too much of a stretch to put Google and a library in the same boat here. Thankfully the BBC has already taken something of a stand in their blog "Should the BBC unpublish any of its online content?" I'll quote from the blog: "Today, the BBC is publishing Editorial Policy Guidance about when we remove or amend BBC online content. Essentially, this says that material on the BBC website which is not available for a limited time period will become part of a permanently accessible archive that we are reluctant to remove or change and that we will only do so in exceptional circumstances. We are also reluctant to remove or alter programmes available on BBC iPlayer during the catch-up period."
It's great that the BBC are doing this, but I wonder how long they'll be able to hold that particular line. Don't forget the requirement on ISPs to filter and block content unless requested otherwise - now that this is in place the technology can allow the Government to effectively block what we can see in the UK, though of course, that only works well if you don't know how to get around the blocks. Are we heading towards a two tier system of information delivery, with those who don't understand how to search privately are missing out information from those that do? (Clearly the answer to that is already yes, but it's going to get worse).
What's the situation going to be like for people who decide that they need to archive specific types of content, such as the Internet Archive, aka the Wayback Machine. How about the UK Web Archive? The next step in this process would surely be for courts to demand the removal of that data as well.
And what is the role of the library in all of this? Should we move towards using browsers such as TOR, which protect our privacy, and direct users towards search engines that don't track us? To what extent should we be advising our library members on this issues? If we have a responsibility to find and present information, how far do we actually take that? If we can, for example get content that Canadian colleagues can't, and they ask us for the information that legally they can't get themselves, what do we do?
Now, I've already been criticised for my concerns over the insane European ruling, and I've been called 'shrill' but I honestly think that we're beginning to go down a slippery slope and we're not going to be able to climb back again. This situation is going to happen again and again, with corporates squabbling in the courts and using search engines as the battle grounds, with the people who need the information being the victims. If this isn't a case for a strong public library system then I'm not entirely sure what is.