Nearly 20 years ago, the European Union directed member nations to protect the privacy of their citizens as new technology networked the world. Indirectly, the directive had a sequel last month in the European Court of Justice in a case now known for "the right to be forgotten". The ruling has reverberated globally because of the implications for press freedom, free speech and the free flow of information. The court said Google must comply with requests from individuals to remove links in search results to newspaper articles and other web pages that might cause embarrassment, if they were found to be "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant", even though true and lawful. Definition of those conditions was left to European jurisdictions and Google.
A Spanish man had brought a case against a newspaper and Google because a search for his name led to pages dating back to 1998 about debts and the forced sale of his home. The Spanish National High Court sought guidance from the European court. People could now demand that search engines remove search result links, inhibiting the flow of information and free speech. The European Parliament has approved a new data protection law that includes "the right to be forgotten", although member countries still need to approve it.
Hong Kong's privacy commissioner, Allan Chiang Yam-wang, says Google should voluntarily extend the new safeguards to this region. To deny that request would amount to applying double standards. But the technological challenge it would pose is already unfolding in Europe, where Google has received tens of thousands of requests to take down sensitive information. In the US, free speech can be expected to prevail over the right to privacy. In Hong Kong, we should wait to see how the conflict plays out in Europe, lest the right to privacy is abused at the expense of free speech.
Chiang rightly conceded that the "right to be forgotten" is not absolute but subject to an overriding public interest. Nonetheless there are real concerns it might force search engines to apply censorship to avoid lawsuits. The internet has democratised information. Lawmakers should not be pressured over privacy concerns to legislate to limit press freedoms or allow censorship of archival content. There may be good reasons to remove embarrassing content from the past. But any such proposals should be subject to public consultation and scrutiny to ensure respect for core freedoms.