Removal of links and the death of history on the internet

Convicted killer Clifford Olson would probably have preferred that any account of his murder of eleven children and young people in the 1980s removed from the internet. Links such as this Wikipedia article which detail the grisly horror.

Courtesy of Gizmodo

Courtesy of Gizmodo

A B.C. technology company also wants links removed for a completely different reason. Equustek’s wants Google to remove links to a competitor’s website. Equustek successfully sued that competitor for theft of their hardware design but the competitor persisted on selling it online. The B.C. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that Google had to comply with Equustek’s request and remove the links. Google complied reluctantly.

However, the court order lays bare a much bigger problem than murder or industrial theft –the erasure of history on the internet. At issue is whether anyone, of motives pure or corrupt, should be able to remove records of significant historical events. Katherine Maher from Wikipedia worries about the jurisdiction of any court to remove history.

“If any country can demand the worldwide removal of search results, vast sections of history, science and culture could disappear from the global Internet. This could infringe on our ability to learn about the history of Tiananmen Square, the potential medical properties of cannabis, the discoveries of Darwin, or unsavoury allegations against the U.S. president-elect (Globe and Mail, Dec 9, 2016).”

Google doesn’t think it’s fair either and has taken their case to the Supreme Court of Canada where issue is currently being deliberated.

But Google is just the messenger. They don’t make webpages, they just find them.  While I’m reluctant to defend global corporate giants, I’m on Google’s side on this one. So are lawyers Ivo Entchev and Jeremy Opoplsky. Not only has the Google been “deputized” to carry out duties of Canadian law but Google is not even incorporated in B.C.

“Google did nothing wrong, but is being forced to bear the cost and responsibility to fix the problem.” “Moreover, Google is concerned by the prospect that court orders from a single jurisdiction can require the search engine to change its worldwide results Globe and Mail Dec. 11, 2016).”

So far, the Supreme Court sees only the little picture. Dissuaded by the threat to history and Google’s argument that the court doesn’t have global jurisdictions, Justice Rosalie Abella was sympathetic to arguments from Equustek’s lawyer.

“Just looking at it from the public interest point of view and the public perception point of view, you really think the public is going to line up behind the right to distribute internationally illegal contraband?” Justice Rosalie Abella asked, “What’s the harm to Google in preventing illegal activity in its wide distributive reach (Globe and Mail, Dec. 6, 2016)?”

If I may respond, Madame Abella, the harm in preventing illegal activity through the deletion of links is that search engines are not the problem. Google is simply shining a spotlight on the grimy nooks and interesting crannies of the world; some of them are illegitimate businesses that well-intentioned Equustek would like to eliminate; others that murderers, tyrants and presidents-elect would prefer remain unseen.

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Why you are safe on social media

When Virginia Champoux’s husband received a lung transplant, her social media usage jumped. “Facebook became her daily – often hourly – outlet for sharing the agonizing, surreal, and occasionally funny details of Jay’s struggle to survive,” writes Jonathan Kay in Walrus magazine (June, 2016).

FB privacy

She wrote about her husband’s struggle to live; the psychotic response to his medication; his penchant for ordering odd products online; his fight to digest solid foods. It seems there was nothing she wouldn’t share.

At first glance, Champoux seems to be a poster child for reckless social media. Not so. “I am meticulous in following certain rules. In general, my children are referred to by initials –never their full names. If I post pictures, they are only visible to my friends –never public. And I always ask other parents’ permission if I post a picture of their own children,” said the Montreal native.

More than that, she has carefully made Facebook lists which specify the breadth of her circles. Lists such as “Cancer” (only those who have suffered from it), “work,” “French” (some francophones are offended by her English posts), “close friends,” “B-list,” “D-list,” and the ultra elite “VVIP” list which is limited to the eight most important people in her life.

I was curious about what she shared publically on her Facebook site. So I looked her up (she was the only one listed). Sure enough, there are videos of Jay walking with a tree of IV bags and posts from the day of his death. I felt a bit voyeuristic but I wanted to see if Champoux had changed or deleted any of the posts since being featured in a national magazine. As far as I could tell, they were all there.

Not everyone would be so willing to share the most painful moments of their lives but that’s the point: for some grieving is private matter, for others it’s cathartic.

Privacy means “the right to be left alone.” That right has never been more challenged with the advent of technology and social media where the greatest volume personal thoughts are shared. It’s been a struggle. In 2011, Facebook was accused of deceiving users by leading us to believe that they were protecting our privacy while allowing access to our lives to third-party software developers.

Facebook responded by tightening security to allow as much or as little public access to your posts as you wish. The problem is that most people don’t use the privacy settings that Facebook provides –all the while complaining about loss of privacy.

Social media users have not kept up with the changes. Instead, they worry. According to a poll done in 2015, 64 per cent of Canadians are worried about how corporations treat their personal data. Of that group, only 13 per cent feel they have total control of their information.

Social media corporations respond to complaints because it’s in their best interest, Kay concludes. “The most remarkable aspect of this privacy revolution is that it is being powered primarily not by new laws, but by corporations acting in their own economic self-interest.”

Phone privacy left unresolved

It’s too bad the court case of the FBI versus Apple didn’t proceed. If it had, the issue of whether phone companies must aid police by releasing private information might be resolved.

FBI new app

The case won’t go to court because the FBI says that they don’t need the cooperation of Apple because they can hack into the phone after all. That presents another problem: if the FBI can hack into anyone’s phone, they should pass on the vulnerability to Apple so it can be fixed.

I’m not a defender of corporations but I was pleased when Apple’s Tim Cook stood up to the FBI. The FBI had obtained a court order requiring Apple to bypass the security lock on an iPhone belonging to a shooter in the San Bernardino terrorist attack.

“The founding fathers would be appalled,” said a righteous Tim Cook. That’s perhaps a little more dramatic than I would have put it but I agree with the sentiment. Phone providers hold our security in their hands. There is an implied, if not explicit, contract between phone companies and customers that privacy should not be breached except in an imminent threat.

Unlike the high-profile FBI case, there was barely a whisper when a similar case occurred in Canada in 2013. That’s when rumours of a video surfaced showing former mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine. Police requested a search warrant for a phone belonging to Ford’s driver and it was granted.

When investigators discovered that the driver’s phone was locked with a password, they went back to the court for an “assistance order,” similar to the one in the U.S., that would require Apple to provide assistance in bypassing the password. And without a fuss, Apple did.

Both cases leave the privacy of phone users unresolved; in the Canadian case because the judge didn’t give reasons for his decision and in the U.S. case because it never went to trial.

The Canadian judge was following a trend common in the Dark Decade when invasion of privacy was virtually government policy. The federal Office of the Privacy Commissioner found that in 2014, police made 1.2 million requests to phone companies according to CBC.

Thankfully, things have changed in Canada when the Supreme Court ruled that police must obtain a search warrant before phone companies hand over personal information. Before the ruling, Police would approach companies with computer IP addresses that were linked to criminal activity or were suspicious, and receive the name, address or phone number of the person associated with that computer address.

The RCMP now hope that the Liberal government will write laws that will allow them access to private information without a warrant. “Kids could be exposed to the hands of a predator longer, before we’re able to intervene,” RCMP Assistant Commissioner Joe Oliver, told Global News.

While everyone wants to protect our kids, the police have a habit of collecting much more information than is necessary. That makes us vulnerable to mistakes. It would allow police to go on fishing expeditions: to gather search history, record of dissent and other personal facts and to store that information without anyone ever knowing about it.

The Right to be Forgotten

Some struggle to be remembered. For others who wish to be forgotten, there is hope.

Before the internet, people lamented that they were faceless numbers. Now, with government surveillance, instant reporting by global news, we long for the good old days of obscurity.

forgotten

We are often victims of our own vanity. We willingly, and sometimes foolishly, throw compromising photos and private details all over social media.

The top European court has a solution, it would seem. The court ruled recently that Europeans have the right to be forgotten. That bad photo of you or news story of your drunk-driving conviction can be erased. In fact, anything, including flattering references can vanish from search results. If you don’t like it, it’s gone.

On closer examination, however, controlling your public image is more complicated than first imagined.

First, while the unwanted search results are gone, the original material is not. The court ruled that unwanted results be removed only from search engines. Obviously, the European court doesn’t have jurisdiction over global websites.

The consequence of the court ruling is like having a library in which the catalogue cards from certain books have been removed because someone didn’t like what was being said about them.  The books are still on the shelf and the objectionable webpages are still there for anyone to uncover.

The court ruling does not apply to public persons and rightfully so. Politicians chose public lives and their decisions affect the course of governments. To erase such references would be to erase history. But just who is public and who is private enough to escape scrutiny?  Should prominent businessmen, celebrities, popular citizens, notorious criminals or activists escape from view?

The whole thing is an administrative nightmare for Google who has to process the flood of requests for obscurity. They have the thankless task of possessing the millions of claims.

Then there is the right to know versus the right to obscurity. Do individuals in society have the right to hide information from everyone else? A Google administrator puts it this way:

“A simple way of understanding what happened here is that you have a collision between a right to be forgotten and a right to know. From Google’s perspective that’s a balance. Google believes having looked at the decision, which is binding, that the balance that was struck was wrong.”

As well, the court attempts to fix a problem that attrition would naturally take care of says Professor Meg Ambrose from Georgetown University. Only about 20 per cent of web content can be found a year later because Google algorithms rank pages according to popularity. “How do you hide a dead body?” goes the joke. “On the third page of search results.”

A lot of stuff on the web is simply too boring or irrelevant to endure the test of time (mine excepted, of course).

Lastly, this is the wrong way to go about implementing policy, Professor Ambrose told CBC radio. Laws should be enforced by the executive branches of government not through one-on-one negotiations between private citizens and corporations.