To you, Google may just be a simple search engine. It’s where you go to answer pressing questions, such as “Where’s the closest Chipotle?” But according to Georgetown law professor Adam Levitin, Google is also a quasi-consumer reporting agency, thanks to the large swaths of information it disseminates to anyone who looks for it, including landlords, employers, lenders and other important decision-makers.
“You thought that Google was just a search engine. It turns out that Google is also a credit reporting agency,” writes Levitin in a recent post on the credit, finance and bankruptcy blog, Credit Slips. “That’s the implication of the European Court of Justice’s ruling ordering Google to take down links to the advertisements to a foreclosure sale from 16 years ago.”
Levitin’s argument rests on the fact that lenders and other decision-makers can, in theory, type your name into a simple Google search and pull up public records documents — such as that long-forgotten home foreclosure that fell off your credit report years ago — and use that information against you.
Unlike a traditional credit report, you can’t challenge inaccurate or outdated information that appears in a Google search if you live in the United States. Under U.S. law, Google is considered to be a search engine, not a credit bureau, so it doesn’t fall under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
But that could change if more people challenge Google’s status. Already, a recent ruling by the European Court of Justice has led some people to question whether or not Google really is just a simple search engine — and whether it should be regulated more forcefully.
The situation in Europe
Earlier this month, the European Court of Justice ruled that Google is a “controller” of personal data and not just a disseminator of it and must now respond to any European user that challenges his or her search results and remove the links in question if there’s no public value in keeping the links available.
That means that if you live abroad and don’t like what comes up when someone types your name into Google’s search engine, you may be able to get those links taken off — especially if the links in question are outdated or could potentially be used against you.
The ruling in Europe is significant because it not only gives individuals more control over their personal information; it also acknowledges that any personal information that’s found online could be used by employers, landlords and even lenders to judge your creditworthiness or potential employability.
It also underscores the fact that Google can and does control the information that’s displayed in search results. And if U.S. lawmakers wanted to, they too could force Google to take more responsibility for the information that shows up.
Implications for the U.S.
It’s highly unlikely that the U.S. will follow Europe’s lead any time soon and force Google to remove links that have been challenged by individual users. But Europe’s ruling does raise questions about Google’s status under U.S. law and whether it should be allowed to publish information not allowed on a credit report.
For example, U.S. consumers who suffer from a bankruptcy, foreclosure or another debt disaster have a right to have that information expunged from their records after a certain period. That way, they won’t be judged for credit problems that occurred many moons ago. Unlike credit reporting agencies, Google doesn’t have to get rid of those records, even though it’s posting the same kind of information. “To date, no one has applied this credit history ‘right to be forgotten’ to Internet search engines,” writes Levitin. “But it isn’t totally clear why they should be exempt.”
After all, he argues, if you apply the Fair Credit Reporting Act‘s definition of a consumer report to the links you pull up on Google, Google’s search engine could, conceivably, fit the definition. “A ‘consumer report’ is defined as ‘any written, oral, or other communication of any information by a consumer reporting agency bearing on a consumer’s creditworthiness, credit standing, credit capacity, character, general reputation, personal characteristics or mode of living which is used or expected to be used or collected in whole or in part for the purpose of serving as a factor in establishing the consumer’s eligibility for…[consumer] credit or insurance….employment purposes… or [licensing or business transactions initiated by the consumer].’ Arguably a link on a search engine fits this statutory definition,” writes Levitin.
In that case, the Fair Credit Reporting Act does indeed apply to Google (at least in theory) and you shouldn’t necessarily have to live with an old foreclosure or bankruptcy haunting you forever. But until U.S. law catches up with the Internet, you won’t be able to do much about the fact that Google is still posting that information.
As it stands now, creditors may not be able to see on your traditional credit report what you did more than 10 years ago. But there’s nothing stopping them from looking you up online and searching the public records information that Google makes so easily available.