Forgetting the right to search
The State Duma Committee on Information Policy and Communications has discussed a bill that requires search engine operators to delete hyperlinks to illegal or unreliable information, or even reliable information that refers to events that happened three years ago or more, from their search results on requests from individuals and without a court order.
Internet search is our core business. In more than 15 years in this market, we have put colossal human and financial investments into our search engine, first and foremost, to offer our users search results that are complete, unbiased and useful. If this bill is passed in its current form, a search engine based on these principles will be difficult or even impossible to develop. That is why we feel it is important for us to offer commentary on this bill.
According to its authors, this bill enables any individual to control distribution of unreliable or outdated personal information on the internet. In principle, this gives people a right, which is based on one of the most basic human rights – the right to privacy, including the right to control access to information about oneself. Unfortunately, the procedure offered in this bill does not stop information from being distributed online, but contradicts the basic principles of law and current legislation.
The current law does not permit limiting a person's right to access reliable information. The Constitution of the Russian Federation guarantees everyone the right to freely seek, obtain, transfer, produce and disseminate information by any lawful means (Article 29). The Federal Act ‘On Information, Information Technologies, and Information Protection’ also stipulates an individual’s or organization’s right to search and obtain any information in any form from any source (Article 8). This is exactly what a search engine does – searches for information available through any public source. This bill ignores the right to search for information.
The limitations introduced by this bill reflect imbalance between private and public interests. The need to seek and obtain information often falls within public interest and concerns public figures, whose actions can have an impact on the general public or private lives. This bill impedes people's access to important and reliable information, or makes it impossible to obtain such information. If this bill is passed, the information about a clinic or a doctor, a school or a teacher one is considering to choose, may be impossible to find.
In addition, the procedure for requesting a search engine to remove hyperlinks introduced in this bill opens the door to numerous opportunities for misuse, as it doesn't require any evidence or justification. A search engine, on the other hand, is required to delete an undefined number or hyperlinks to indeterminate web pages. This loophole can very conveniently be used by unscrupulous businesses to undermine their rivals, or by criminals to facilitate fraud.
But even if we assume that it is possible to equal adequate information with inadequate or illegal information in the right to be searched for, one question remains: who will study the information which is searched for, and decide whether it is legal, adequate, relevant or reliable? The bill assigns this role to search engines, while the functions of the court or law enforcement agencies are given to individual commercial organizations. Failure to comply with this role is punished with penalties and litigations.
This bill also ignores the basic principles of information technology and information search. It gives any person the right to request a search engine operator to stop providing hyperlinks to web pages that contain specific information, but it does not require this person to say which hyperlinks should be removed. All they have to do is provide the information, hyperlinks to which they want to be removed. Instead of deleting hyperlinks to specific web pages from search results, a search engine is expected to stop retrieving a piece of information on any search terms and regardless of its location on the internet. For this to become plausible, a search engine operator would have to find all pages containing this information that might appear in any place in search results triggered by any search term that a human mind can come up with. This step alone would take eternity. The next steps would require a search engine operator to make sure that these pages do contain the information hyperlinks to which were requested to be removed, and then confirm that this information is indeed inadequate or older than three years old. It is obvious that this is an impossible task.
Even though the list of flaws of this bill can go further, it doesn't make sense discussing them all at a point when the stipulated procedure itself contradicts the law and is technically impossible.
The current bill is much less well thought through than the Google Spain v ARPD, González (C-131/12) decision by the Court of Justice of the European Union, which has been widely criticized, and which the Russian bill has often been likened to.
The links to be removed from search results mandated by the ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union are specific, lead to specific information and appear on a narrow class of search terms. Hyperlink erasure is also considered on a case-by-case basis to make sure it does not limit access to important information or alter the balance between private and public interests.