Privacy versus the Freedom of Speech


By: Dr. Lynn Reaser

ImageEurope’s highest court this week ruled that individuals may request Google and other Internet companies to delete information about them related to news articles or legal rulings.  Concerns are being raised on the implications of this action.

Granting individuals the right to request that electronic links about them be eliminated will impact search engines and the full access to information.  However, this issue involves the conflict between privacy rights and the freedom of speech.  It is not about restricting competition from vested interests or monopolies (e.g., taxicabs).  The court’s ruling also will only affect searches in Europe versus the U.S., where the First Amendment supports the free flow of information.  Even in Europe, individual petitions may need to be approved by regulators who will weigh individual versus public interests.  Innovation, with more and more Internet apps, will continue.

At the same time, Internet companies and the U.S. government will ultimately need to address ongoing concerns about privacy.  Allowing individuals to restrict the information posted about them could allow access to only favorable information and present a one-sided and biased profile.  This could prevent, for example, the dissemination of knowledge of criminal behavior, fraudulent activities, or doctor malpractice suits.  However, the posting and maintenance of erroneous information could put a permanent negative stamp on individuals.

Striking the proper balance between privacy and the freedom of speech or access to information will be difficult.  But, the time has come to set guidelines.

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