Freedom vs Privacy

Posted on 08. October 2014

by Milan Balaban

milan-balaban2By the time you’ve finished reading this paragraph, approximately 3 billion internet users will have posted more than 48 hours of YouTube videos, 3600 Instagram photos and tens of thousands of Facebook articles. As we increasingly live out our lives in the digital world, the lines between freedom and privacy are becoming blurred. Until now, the internet has been a largely unregulated place, making it one of the most democratic tools in existence. But ever since companies and governments have entered the digital age, net neutrality has not only become a familiar concept, but also a legal issue.

The EU and US were the first to start a crusade against unfiltered internet data. First, there was a united stance on copyrighted material and on how the authors should be protected. However, more recently, the ‘right to be forgotten’, or the right to remove certain data from search engine results, has caused a rift between EU and US digital policies. “There is an inevitable conflict between two distinct social values – privacy and free speech”, said Elliot Schrage, VP of Communications and Public Policy at Facebook. The US is dedicated to enabling free speech and treating the internet searches as a public library, while the EU is more focused on the privacy of individuals.

Google, as a search engine responsible for more than 90% of search traffic in the EU, has found itself in a peculiar position. It is both the judge and the executioner when it comes to serving data to the customers. Google has said that this is definitely not something they were ever hoping to do. EU laws have forced Google to create a policing mechanism that will upon request judge what kind of data should and should not stay visible in their search engine results. At the end of the day, a search engine is, not unlike a sword, just a tool. It can be used for both good and evil, depending on who wields the power. Commissioner-designate for Digital Economy and Society, Günther Oettinger, has openly started to promote the ‘right to be forgotten’ and said that he will continue do so during his whole term as Commissioner.

However, there is an additional layer in the privacy cake. The items removed from country-level Google searches (for example from google.de) will still be available on google.com because they are not influenced by exactly the same privacy policy. This has been used as a pro –argument in the ‘right to be forgotten’ discussion; all the data is still available…somewhere. It seems, however, that the bigger picture has been lost: the biggest democracy we can find – the internet – is being policed in such a way that we no longer have an unimpeded access to information, but a filtered and partial view. Individuals should be educated on how to keep private files secure in order to make them less vulnerable to hacking attempts, but also realize that once they write something online it will stay there forever.

Online privacy has become an important issue and governments need to find a balance between, on the one hand, helping their citizens by implementing copyright laws, protecting content creators and providing the tools to stop internet crimes, and on the other, safeguarding the core values of the internet as a place that offers freedom and democracy to every digital citizen in the world.

Read the opinion of another FutureLaber on the right to be forgotten here.