Europe Gets Tough on Privacy

Last week’s privacy ruling by Europe’s highest court is already sending ripples—a tidal wave of anxiety might be more accurate—through the business world. In case you’ve been vacationing in the Himalayan highlands, the European Union (EU) Court of Justice said that individuals have a right to exert at least some control over what others could learn about them through online searches. It ordered Google and others to alter the way they collect and display information about people.

Of course, the ruling has implications that reach far beyond the European Union. Businesses and free speech advocates (an odd pairing) are livid. They argue that the ruling could introduce censorship and threaten newsgathering.

Privacy advocates are elated. They say the ruling allows individuals to retain some control over their personal information.

Both are probably right. But somewhere between the two polar opposites lies a very real world rife with very real problems—many of which no one has bothered to figure out.

Should a young person who posts a drunken photo from high school live with the consequences for an entire lifetime? Does a person have the right to smear another person or post lies or revealing photos about them that become that person’s lifetime digital tattoos?

On the other hand, should an ex-politician have the right to surgically remove links about past behavior while in office? Should a pedophile have links to his or her conviction wiped away upon request? Should a doctor, lawyer or shopkeeper have the ability to remove online customer reviews that are negative?

These latter questions aren’t theoretical. They are based on real world requests already submitted to Google.

Let’s face it, for better or worse, we view just about everything through the filter of our motivations and what we stand to gain or lose in a given situation. At a certain point, it’s almost laughably predictable. But this doesn’t negate the fact that our interconnected world must sort out these issues and find a way to strike some balance.

In the meantime, there’s a takeaway for business and IT executives: Start thinking a lot more about how products and services impact privacy and how security plays a role. Spend a lot more time analyzing data policies and designing systems that attempt to balance accuracy with personal protections.

Otherwise, particularly as big data and the Internet of things gain momentum, there will likely be a lot more pushback—in the court of law and in the court of public opinion.