The Future of Journalism

Reactions to my earlier article published on 20 May continue to reverberate in Europe and across the world.

However, I did choke on my breakfast on 30 May when I heard on BBC radio that “Google has agreed to comply with a recent EU privacy ruling”. In an interview with the Financial Times, Larry Page, the company’s chief executive said “I wish we had been more involved in a real debate …in Europe. That’s one of the things we have taken from this”. This is a 180 degree turnaround from Google’s initial reactions two weeks ago when the ECJ surprisingly over-ruled the advice of its own Advocate General and demanded that Google delete irrelevant and outdated links from its search results. Google is now publishing an online complaints form on its European sites from 30 May, where anyone wanting to remove links to information about them will need to report three things: the URL of the offending material, their home country and an explanation of why they think the link(s) should disappear. Google has recruited a blue-riband panel of mainly outside experts to hold hearings and advise it on how to deal with its new privacy commitments.

This is a real change of attitude from the world’s largest search company, which previously had held to a principle of full information transparency, which has led it into a series of legal disputes in Europe. It is also noteworthy that Google holds a bigger share of the search market in several key EU states than it does in the USA. CEO Page went on to say “We’re trying now to be more European and think about it maybe more from a European context. A very significant amount of time is going to be spent in Europe talking.”

Google also warned that the ECJ ruling could hamper the setting-up and growth of new search engines in that they will have to build-in a cost of compliance from start-up, implying that Google has the resources that others would find difficult to match.

In effect, Google has become almost a utility-like resource in many European countries in terms of search, with several countries relying for around 90% of searches on this one company. This has longer-term implications for European media, as stated in the original post, more and more traditional print newspapers and press agencies are going out of business, some will have made provision for archives to remain accessible, others will not. If the search engines are required to delete what are considered irrelevant or outdated links today, it may prove difficult if not impossible to retrieve the original source content in future. This may allow a generation of academics, politicians and others to have their offences or indiscretions deleted from the search engines now, only for it to become impossible to trace these data in ten, twenty or more years into the future when they may be seeking high office or powerful positions to which these currently described misdemeanours, may have a much more significant or sinister relevance. Others may argue that as Google will not be obliged to remove or delete links stored and published on www.google.com but only on national sites in Europe, investigative journalists will still have access via the US site. It remains to be seen whether national Google sites will automatically record links on Google.com in decades to come.

In Germany, the Interior Ministry is considering setting up “cyber courts” to adjudicate between individuals seeking to protect their privacy and search engines. Making judgements on such conflicts should not be “left up to a Google algorithm” according to a German ministry spokesperson.

​Germany’s Economy Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung went even further “The dangers of the digital revolution lie on one hand in authoritarian or even totalitarian tendencies that live in the possibilities of technology itself, but on the other hand, in the possibility that the new monopoly powers will hollow out law and justice. Nothing less is at stake than the future of democracy in the age of digitalization, and with it, the freedom, emancipation, participation and autonomy of 500m people in Europe.

Strong stuff and a major challenge to Google’s motto to ‘do no evil’ – the implications of the ECJ ruling will continue to reverberate for some time to come.

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