Europeans can now request information about themselves be removed from the web

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. Frankly, I feel lucky to have been in college when posting pictures on the internet wasn't yet a thing. As it is, the analogue photos continue to be humbling reminders of late adolescence. Today, it's a whole different ballgame, though. We voluntarily post information about ourselves - a lot of it - on the web. And if, say, in a few years, I don't want that picture I posted five years ago to be available, tough luck. In Europe, though, things are changing; a top European court ruled today that individuals there can ask search engines to remove online data about them. It's also known as "the right to be forgotten." So as you can imagine, that's caused a lot of head turns in the digital and privacy world. Jonathan Zittrain is a professor of law at Harvard Law School. He also co-founded the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Professor Zittrain, tell us more about this decision by the European High Court today. What does it actually mean for all of us? Jonathan Zittrain: Well, this decision started - and there's a number of cases - but this is one particular case in which a Spanish citizen did not like the fact that a foreclosure, that had happened years ago because he hadn't paid his debts properly, was something that could be found if you searched under his name. And he asked both the original source of the document to take it down, and he asked Google not to index it anymore, and Google declined to do that, and he brought suit under the "1995 data protection directive" of the European Union. And I think, to many experts' surprise, the EU's highest court just essentially backed him up. And we're still trying to figure out exactly the parameters of the ruling, but it sounds like if you have a problem with what gets returned on a search that involves your name, then you can ask a search engine like Google to remove it. And they don't always have to remove it, but whether or not they do is a complicated question that involves balancing various rights, so I would imagine that in wake of this ruling, many engines will - if it doesn't change - start just taking stuff down, at least for results on searches on your own name. Werman: So what kind of information can be deleted, and won't future debates on this all turn on what kind of information comes out on a search? Zittrain: Well, if you were hoping to have the answer to that question of what kind of information needs to be subject to the citizen's right to delete... If you were gonna look to the court's opinion for answers, you would come up empty handed. The opinion is not clear at all. To me, it's not even clear if this fellow actually has the right to have his foreclosure removed, and it's striking to me that in the press release that the court issued about its own opinion, it names the guy and the fact that he was foreclosed upon. And I don't know if what that means is if Google were to index the very press release under the guy's name, would the guy have a right to have that taken out as a result on the search? So I imagine it has to do with information that is from the past, maybe at one point was deemed relevant but is less so because so many years have passed, is something that is embarrassing or unpleasant to the person it concerns, and for which there's no particular great public reason to have it associated with that person. That's my best shot at trying to describe what it is, but again, there's not much of a road map in this particular opinion. Werman: This decision came from the European high court. Could you see something like this happening in the US, a similar decision? Zittrain: I do not. There might be instances at which you could see courts stepping in to say, "X piece of information needs to come down, or there's damage if you leave it up." But we have a much stronger track record of, first, not blaming intermediaries so much for that which they index, so search engines do pretty well here. And we have the first amendment, which there are plenty of things in Europe that would not pass first amendment muster, including in Germany, it's illegal to display neo-Nazi sentiments or symbols. And that's why, for years, on request will take down links to neo-Nazi governments that, if the government were to try to order that here, it would not be allowed; the first amendment would stop that. Werman: One opinion from the European high court, but a lot of questions that follow. Harvard University's Jonathan Zittrain, thanks very much for speaking with us. Zittrain: Thank you, Marco.