Thursday, September 8, 2011

My Italian Appeal

A lot of you have wondered about the status of the appeal of my Italian conviction. So, here's a short update, just on some logistical points.

There have been some changes to my legal defense team. First, I'd like to congratulate one of the defense team's members, Giuliano Pisapia, on his recent election as Mayor of Milan. Sadly for me, of course, he will be withdrawing from the legal team. But I'm delighted that Giulia Bongiorno and Carlo Blengino have joined my team. Giulia will be fully on board once her work in the Amanda Knox/ Raffaele Sollecito appeal winds down.

Preliminary appeal briefs have been filed with the Milan appeals court, but the appeal has not yet been assigned to individual appeals court judges. Once that happens, the judges will decide on a hearing schedule. So, realistically, I am not expecting the hearings to begin until later this fall. I have no insights into how many hearings will be held, nor when they might be held.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

September 11

September 11, seen 10 years later, changed many things in the world, in geo-political terms. Some people also think it changed the nature of privacy too, since it gave rise to the Patriot Act.

I can't think of any topic in the field of privacy that has been more polemicized and politicized and distorted than discussions about the Patriot Act. Most discussions about it are simply factually and legally wrong. I respect Microsoft for blogging and explaining this. It takes courage to talk about this issue, since so many people around the world have passionate reasons to want to resist or restrict the power of (some, all, or just the US) governments to use valid legal process to access data.

Over and over again, I read about people and politicians around the world saying that they want their data to be stored in the cloud (i.e., in a data center) in their country/Continent, so that it's protected from American law enforcement under the Patriot Act. This is a common refrain, for example, in Europe and Canada. Indeed, it has given rise to an entire industry purporting to offer "euro-clouds".

Therefore, it's perhaps surprising for some people to learn that the location of storage of the data has no impact on this issue, with regards to US-headquartered companies. It has limited impact on this issue, with regards to non-US headquartered companies. I won't repeat the legal analysis, since Microsoft's blog did a good job in explaining it.

It's well-known that global cloud-service providers maintain data centers around the world, mostly to ensure that their services operate with efficiency, speed and reliability. But they don't, and can't, operate as tools to evade or circumvent valid US government access to information, whether under the Patriot Act or any of its related/predecessor laws, since the location of data within the cloud is simply not a relevant legal factor. I know that's controversial, but it's also a legal fact, so kudos to Microsoft for saying it publicly.

Monday, September 5, 2011

"The Right to be Forgotten", seen from Spain

I'd like to share some personal musings about an interesting series of court cases pending in Spain, pitting the "right to be forgotten" against the right to freedom of expression. The New York Times reported on this debate recently. In a nutshell, the cases ask the question whether people can demand that search engines delete content from their indexes, even if the content is true and the third-party site that published it clearly has the right to publish it (e.g., newspapers).

Virtually everyone uses search engines to find information on the web. There are way over a trillion pages on the web today. To help people find what they're looking for in the vastness of the web, search engines create giant indexes of the web. Search engines are intermediaries, since they don't create, select or edit the content on the web sites they index. Search engines try to match a user's search query with the search results most likely to be relevant, using complex algorithms to rank the likely relevance of a particular webpage. The vast majority of websites want to appear in search engine indexes, but if they don't want to be included in the index, they can use a simple tool, called robots.txt, to opt-out of being indexed by all leading searching engines.

Many websites publish information about people, and sometimes this information can be hurtful to a person's sense of privacy or reputation. For example, government websites or newspapers may publish information about criminal convictions or accusations of medical malpractice. People who feel that information about them was wrongly published by these web sites can always ask them to correct or delete it. But newspapers and government websites usually have published this information legally, or indeed may even be legally obligated to publish it, or may be exercizing their rights of freedom of expression. As search engine intermediaries, Google and other search engines play no role in what these web sites publish, or in deciding whether they should revise or remove content based on someone's privacy claim against them.

That's why I think it's wrong that the Spanish Data Protection Authority has launched over a hundred different privacy suits against Google, demanding that Google delete web sites from its index, even though the original websites that published the information (including Spanish newspapers and Spanish official government journals) published that information legally and continue to offer it. The legal question is important: should search engines like Google be responsible for the content of the web sites that they index? Should Google be forced to remove links from its search index, in the name of privacy, even if the websites that published it want to be included in its search index and the content is legal? Should search engines be used to make information harder to find, even if the information is legally published?

I have great sympathy with people who feel their privacy has been invaded by a web site that publishes information about them. But search engines shouldn't be asked to delete links to legal content that is published by a third-party website. These cases have sometimes been referred to as about the "right to be forgotten". In fact, these cases are not about deleting or "forgetting" content, but just about making it harder to find content. These cases would make it impossible for users to use search engines to find content that otherwise continues to exist on the web.

It's not hard to imagine the negative consequences for freedom of expression, if search engines could be ordered to delete links to any website that publishes content about a person that is deemed to have invaded someone's privacy. The debate about privacy v freedom of expression is an important and timeless debate, which is becoming more urgent in the age of the Internet. But it's wrong to try to use search engines to try to make legal information harder to find. It's wrong to use search engines as a indirect tool of censorship, since European law rightly holds the publisher of material is responsible for its content. Requiring intermediaries like search engines to censor material published by others would have a profound chilling effect on freedom of expression.

There are better ways to protect privacy online, by remembering that it should be the publisher of content who is responsible for it. Interestingly, the Spanish Data Protection Authority seems to be coming around to this conclusion itself. It recently issued a resolution ordering a website to use the robots.txt protocol to exclude some of its pages from search engine indexes. That's exactly the right approach. Now, the debate will turn to the websites that receive such orders: should they exclude some of their pages from search engine indexes, in the name of privacy, or should they refuse, in the name of freedom of expression? Newspapers worldwide, and in particular their online archives, will soon be in the middle of this debate. I believe that Spanish papers, like El Pais, are now respecting such orders. I would wager that The New York Times wouldn't, based on their reporting on Two German Killers demanding Anonymity Sue Wikipedia's Parent.

This is a difficult debate, and I'm sure that different publishers will come to different conclusions about it. That's how it should be.