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Sunday, 13 February 2011

Do we have a 'right to be found'?


I've thought (and written) a lot about privacy and autonomy - but I'm fully aware that privacy and autonomy are not the only important human rights relevant to the internet. Indeed, they may not be the most important, particularly compared to freedom of expression – the internet is to a great extent a communications medium, and much of the current use of the internet relates to the expression of ideas, particularly in relation to what might loosely be described as the Web 2.0 applications: blogs, wikis, social networking and related services. Free expression can be considered another aspect of autonomy – what's more, the privacy-related threats to autonomy can have a significant impact on freedom of expression, not just directly (for example where a dissident blogger is tracked down and arrested as a result of breaches of privacy) but through the chilling effect – a kind of ‘Internet Panopticon’ effect – that the knowledge of the potential privacy-related risks can produce.

There are also, however, aspects to the issue of free expression that do not relate just to privacy. One particularly direct aspect relates to the functioning of search engines and other navigation methods through the internet. Does the creator of a website have a ‘right to be found’? That kind of a right wouldn’t mean that a site could demand special treatment from a search engine – but that the site should be able to be sure that it wouldn’t receive specially unfair treatment, and that a search engine should treat it on its merits, according the principles that are known and understood. Any kind of a right to free expression, in relation to the internet, wouldn't seem to mean much if what you express can't be found.

The implementation of a right like this would have particular difficulties in relation to the rights of the search engines themselves to trade secrets insofar as their search algorithms are concerned, but companies and the EC have already bitten the bullet sufficiently to take Google on in terms of possible biasing of search results in the ‘Foundem’ case and this kind of right would related directly to this kind of bias, as bias in favour of something is by its very nature bias against something else. Google have responded to that accusation in relation to Foundem by saying (amongst other things) ‘We built Google for users, not websites,' (see for example here) but in an increasingly personal internet, where users are becoming publishers, is that a sufficiently strong argument? If free expression is to be taken seriously, it may not be.

A ‘right to be found’ would be intended to prevent both bias and censorship – of the kind exercised by authoritarian regimes, for example – and would also have direct implications on the work of organisations like the Internet Watch Foundation, requiring them to be properly transparent and accountable, something that at present they generally seem not to be...