Online Opinion Outpost: May 27

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The Online Opinion Outpost features opinions and commentary on the latest hot topics from national news sources. As much as you love hearing from The Universe, we thought you might like to hear from journalists around the nation.

Google privacy war

New York Times Editorial Board

In a ruling that could undermine press freedoms and free speech, the highest court of the European Union said on Tuesday that Google must comply with requests from individuals to remove links on search results pages to newspaper articles and other web pages that might cause embarrassment.

The European Court of Justice ruled that an individual’s “right to be forgotten” was so strong that Google and other Internet search companies could be forced to remove links even if the information in question was itself accurate and lawful.

European lawmakers and courts have a long history of protecting privacy. In March, the European Parliament approved a new data protection law that, among other things, includes an explicit right to be forgotten. European governments still need to sign off on that legislation before it can be finalized.

The desire to allow individuals to erase data that they no longer wish to disclose is understandable. For example, there are good reasons to let people remove embarrassing photos and posts they published on social media as children or young adults. But lawmakers should not create a right so powerful that it could limit press freedoms or allow individuals to demand that lawful information in a news archive be hidden.

Marc Rotenberg, USA Today

The decision of the European court this week was not surprising. As technology has evolved, so too has European privacy law. 

It gives people some ability to control their personal information held by others, particularly when those with the data are commercial firms profiting from its sale. 

Enter Google. The company now controls more than 90% of the Internet search market in Europe. It routinely records and stores search histories and directs advertising based on intimate personal facts. It provides name-based searches that shape our understanding of others. And it reveals to others information about us that we may wish to keep private.

The European court concluded that this is a business, and that it should comply with the law. 

The European court wisely distinguished between search companies and news organizations. In the decision, Google was viewed as a commercial service provider, not a media organization.

The privacy agency in Spain also did not impose any obligations on the newspaper that actually published the information in dispute.

Supporters of free expression are right to oppose government efforts to restrict the Internet.

But regulating a company’s business practices is not the same as regulating the Internet. If we are to have an Internet that protects the freedom of its users, we must place fundamental rights of users before the commercial interests of companies.

Trigger warnings?

David Perry, CNN

Over the last few months, students, faculty and administrators at a number of universities have been debating whether faculty should be obligated to place “trigger warnings” on their syllabi before assigning content that might trigger a traumatic episode in one of their students.

Proponents of trigger warnings, reasonably, argue that students will be unable to learn when confronted with content that triggers traumatic recollection. This isn’t about students just being uncomfortable, they say, but about ensuring students don’t have to choose between their education and their sense of safety.

Critics of trigger warnings, also reasonably, contend that education requires pushing students to engage with difficult material that makes them uncomfortable. Professors worry about academic freedom and having to address a whole cascade of “isms” as they design and execute their syllabi.

Furthermore, they see the focus on trigger warnings now as part of the corporatization of higher education, in which syllabi are designed not to structure learning but to prevent lawsuits. 

To some extent, both sides are right. Some students suffer from serious trauma, but there’s no feasible way a blanket policy on trigger warning can really work.

If professors follow good teaching practices and help students be ready for the course content as it unfolds, while universities provide well-funded and expert disability support services, we should be ready to handle whatever trigger issues lurk undetected.

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