Should Search Engines Have to Enforce Privacy Rulings?

A Committee of UK Members of Parliament has recommended that search engines should have to remove material from search results that infringe privacy. Here is a news report on the committee’s recommendations. Here is The Committee’s document.

It looks as if they are talking about material that has been found by a court to be an invasion of privacy, rather than having to make that initial decision. But once a court has found a story or a picture to offend privacy interests, the search engines should have to develop a method of hunting down that story or picture and blocking it from search results.

Does that make sense to you, as a matter of policy, law or technology? Google’s counsel told the Committee that an algorithm could be developed, but that it would be a bad idea to do so, because the algorithm could not be sensitive to context. Is that a good enough reason? Or would such legislation itself be too invasive or too restrictive of free inquiry?


  1. David Collier-Brown

    To use a strictly technical argument, “that won’t scale”.

    The search companies, meaning Google and the seven dwarfs, will each independently have to find a way of
    1) marking the material confidential
    2) recognizing it everywhere it’s republished, and
    3) recognizing similar material

    The size of the second task is the number of thing banned times the number of pages in the world wide web, which means that it will always be behind, currently by some number of weeks, and once there are a lot of things to recognize, may well take months to years. That means they will constantly be in breach of some order or another.

    The third is an interesting problem in artificial intelligence. Right now, humans can definitely do it. It’s not obvious that computers ever will be able to do so.


  2. David Collier-Brown

    A good public-policy/legal question might be whether, if the search engine is not republishing something, it has a duty to not point to the place where, presumably, the thing no longer resides. That sound to me like a law that says “one may not refer to non-existent things”, such as fairies in the garden.

    If the search engine is keeping a copy, though …