FILE - A Google search page is reflected in sunglasses in this photo illustration taken in Brussels, May 30, 2014.
FILE - A Google search page is reflected in sunglasses in this photo illustration taken in Brussels, May 30, 2014.

SINGAPORE - The rise of income inequality has been diverse, affecting who has access to good schools, health care, and even tax planners to find cushy loopholes. Now inequality may be creeping into a lesser-known realm: the right to be forgotten.

This issue is a new one, with internet users, mostly in Europe, complaining that ugly details about their past should be taken offline, mostly by Google. The controversy pits privacy rights against free speech, or the right to public information.

But if, for example, people have decades-old criminal records they don’t want publicized online, who can afford to fight in court for their right to be forgotten?

Robert Grosvenor, senior member of the privacy and data protection practice at consulting firm Promontory, said the answer is likely politicians, business people, and other powerful figures. Yet it is typically in cases with such prominent positions that greater scrutiny serves the public interest.

“There will be two groups,” said John Vong, a former U.N. adviser and the lead organizer of the Data Privacy Asia conference in Singapore on Aug. 25-27.

In one group are the “big guys” who can take their privacy battles to court, Vong said, and in the other are the “small guys” who can’t afford it.

Privacy for politicians, priests

Grosvenor said this divide might emerge because individual citizens would pick the battles if governments and Google don’t take responsibility. It’s not in a search engine’s business model to delete links, he said, and the state might not have the resources to monitor and manage so many complaints.

Nevertheless, “In most situations you'd expect the regulator or the judiciary to make public-interest decisions,” Grosvenor said, speaking on a panel at the conference.

Francoise Gilbert, general counsel at the Cloud Security Alliance, agreed search engines should not be the arbiters of information, deciding when privacy concerns outweigh the the public’s right to know.

But she pointed to a Google page on which the company explains how it responded to more than a dozen requests for link removals. It purged links for a Belgian whose criminal conviction was overturned, a Latvian activist stabbed at a protest, and a Swede not wanting her address known, for example.

Google decided, however, that a French priest who had child porn, a Hungarian official with a criminal record, and an Austrian couple accused of business fraud did not have the right to be forgotten.

Expanding beyond Europe

Most high-profile cases so far have involved Europeans suing Google.

But that is likely to change as citizens from Mexico to Japan take up the debate. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin signed an EU-style law in July that demands search engines delete results containing inaccurate or illegally-disclosed personal information.

In South Korea, lawyer Park Kwang Bae said the EU court decisions “triggered” discussions about the right to be forgotten. Other news already had Koreans worrying about privacy, from suicides connected to cyber bullying, to a credit card data theft that hit 40 percent of the country, including the president and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Park, a partner at Lee & Ko, said Korea already has one of the stiffest data protection laws in the world and might consider codifying the right to be forgotten. But he doesn’t want regulations to sanitize the internet.

“If in limited situations it needs to be allowed” then he would accept link deletion, Park said, “but it can’t be general.”