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We must defend the right to disappear

IN the first quarter of this year, Google achieved ­revenues in the UK of $1.58 billion (£1bn).

If past form is anything to go by, that was around 10% of the company's global earnings for the three months in question. A stupendous number of clicks on a vast number of adverts produced a gigantic amount of money.

That's what Google does. As is well known, it then takes every legal step possible to ensure the bare minimum goes to governments. In 2012, sales of $4.9bn in the UK led to a tax bill of $55 million. Of $8.1bn in "non-US income", 2.6% was paid in tax to non-US treasuries. In Europe, the profits flowed through Dublin to a Google subsidiary in Bermuda and left barely a trace behind, least of all in Ireland.

You can find all of this information online in seconds thanks to the world's favourite search engine. Just don't deceive yourself into thinking the fantastic liberties inherent in the internet have nothing to do with likely revenues this year of more than $60bn.

Nevertheless, Google sometimes seems to present itself as being above such considerations. In its self-image it is an entity, an engine, software, even a verb, not a US corporation with 46,421 full-time employees - one whose founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, are estimated to be worth $32.2bn and $28.9bn respectively.

Cleverly, reliably (more or less), Google connects individuals with information. What could be less sinister? The firm's informal in-house motto says it all: "Don't be evil." The search engine is an intermediary, like the telephone directory. It cannot be expected to take responsibility for the behaviour of its millions of users, whether they are ripping off copyrights, defaming one another or worse.

Such is the convenient theory. The trouble is that Google has not been exactly consistent in playing its get-out-of-jail-free card, and courts around the world have not always been as co-operative as the not-evil empire would hope. Accused of serving its own interests with its search results, the company has sometimes hinted that it might be a publisher after all, one entitled to "protected speech" under America's First Amendment.

But if that's the case, how can it also be a mere "connector", wholly neutral where content is concerned? In the United States, jurists have been arguing the point. The rest of us might have less arcane concerns: How responsible is Google for what its searches might produce? What gives it the right, whether as algorithm-driven intermediary or publisher, to rummage the world for the sake of a tax-­efficient advertising buck, heedless of the consequences? By that logic, we should all be entitled to a cut of the profits whenever we turn up in online searches.

Mario Costeja Gonzalez, below, and the European Court of Justice have asked versions of the first two questions and threatened to put Google's algorithms under strain. The Spanish gentleman objected to the fact that a brief notice announcing an auction, first published in newspaper La Vanguardia in 1998, kept turning up in internet searches involving his name. The original piece said his repossessed house was being sold to settle debts. Gonzalez saw no reason why the world should be reminded of the fact over and over again.

His reaction was not unique. A cliche of the internet - though one that happens to be true - is that nothing can be expunged entirely from its repositories. Fact or falsehood, relevant or irrelevant, things endure somewhere.

Many people know this to their cost. The spent conviction lives on. That wacky, long-discarded opinion survives along with the excruciating photograph of your drunken teenage self. The slander long since refuted is still being repeated for new neighbours or future employers to goggle over while they Google.

In siding with Gonzalez, the European Court of Justice upheld a concept with a nicely poetic ring. There is such a thing, said the ruling, as a "right to be forgotten" when data is "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant". While there was no suggestion that La Vanguardia should be censored retrospectively, Google should delete links, as Gonzalez had requested. In essence, it was a matter of privacy.

The court ruling did not hesitate over fine distinctions between conduit and publisher. Given data protection laws in Europe, Google was defined as a "data controller". The court accepted there should be a public interest defence against the deletion of information, especially where public figures were involved, but judged that searches could amount to "more or less detailed" profiles of private lives. These deserved protection.

Schooled as we are (not least by internet evangelists) to believe that information is sacred, we find ourselves with a paradox: to the likes of Google, none of that lovely, profitable information is sacred. Since everyone can Google everyone else, surely no harm can be done? Information is "truth" - how can that be harmful? So you won't mind, will you, if anyone can peer at your front door on Google Maps?

Google found the Gonzalez ruling "disappointing". The Westminster Government, obliging as ever, has meanwhile opposed the right to disappear because of the commercial damage it could cause to companies that profit from information. For its part, campaign group Index On Censorship has argued that there are dangers in allowing certain individuals to conceal themselves or rewrite their histories. What can we trust, after all, if not the all-seeing, all-knowing global search engine?

Once upon a time there was a word for the kind of society from which there is no escape. Now we simply fail to grasp why an innocent person would want to go "off the grid". The notion that those with nothing to fear have nothing to hide, and no right to hide, has become pervasive. We give personal information away and expect access to information - all that we think we desire - in exchange. No-one calls this totalitarian. Anyone bent on privacy is eccentric at best, dangerous at worst.

When the tale of Google and Gonzalez was told last week, one aspect of the affair was overlooked: When and by what means did Google acquire its right to intrude at will and pass the habit off as benign, if not praiseworthy? When did we all sign the full disclosure agreement?

Google and its algorithms are very clever. Not only have they convinced us that we could not function without them, they have persuaded us that all must participate or all will suffer. The right to disappear, to play no part, must be sacrificed for the greater good.

You can find links on Google to help you see why this is a creepy notion indeed.

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