“Fundamental rights should be at the forefront of web search”

Interview with Dr. Christian Geminn. The lawyer is Managing Director of the provet research group at the University of Kassel, on the board of the Open Search Foundation as well as the moderator of the osf Legal specialist group.

Interview: Susanne Vieser

As we search for information on the Internet, legal questions arise: Which results does the search engine show – and which not? Does this mean that content is suppressed or even promoted? Most of the time, users click on the first 15 or 20 results, the rest is considered irrelevant. This is how the ranking is influencing the (economic) competition. An open search also raises legal questions: “From a legal point of view, many questions about an open Web search are unresolved,” says Christian Geminn.

Geminn, who holds a doctorate in law, focuses on the handling of data from various perspectives. For this purpose, Geminn researches and teaches at the University of Kassel, manages the business of the data law consulting company, and heads the Legal group of the Open Search Foundation together with Kai Erenli from the University of Applied Sciences in Vienna. The most important concern: developing technology in such a way that basic legal and democratic principles are taken into account. “Legal regulation of new technologies and new social practices usually happens only after they have already become entrenched,” Geminn notes. But that has to change in the future: in order for the Internet to become more free, more democratic and less controlled by economic interests.

What is a lawyer’s interest in an open search?

Dr. Christian Geminn: From a legal point of view, many questions about an open web search are unsettled. Clarifying these questions is difficult, but also quite exciting. Web search touches on many areas of law, such as competition law, copyright law, data protection law and many other rights. Which basic personal rights are affected by search engines? From a layman’s point of view, surprisingly many. Above all, freedom of expression, the right to informational self-determination, as well as the right to obtain information from generally accessible sources without hindrance are worth mentioning. Of course, search engine operators can also invoke fundamental rights.

What do you want to achieve at OSF?

Geminn: As a lawyer, I would like to see the concept of technology design guided by fundamental rights, realized in an important basic infrastructure of the Internet, which is the Search. This is to ensure that fundamental rights and legal principles in particular, rather than economic interests, are in the foreground and can be claimed in search.

Developing search technology in a way that preserves fundamental rights is one of OSF’s claims – is that even possible? And do you have an example of where this is already working?

Geminn: Fundamental rights-based technology design has been practiced successfully for many years, for instance in the design of apps and hardware. However, the approach often has to be defended against opposing interests in the development process. The approach has not yet been applied to Internet search in a comprehensive way.

Politics and the legislature always seem to be one step behind when it comes to Internet issues: Are your concerns being heard by lawyers and politicians?

Geminn: The legal regulation of new technologies and new social practices usually only takes place once they have become firmly rooted. As a result, they can only be changed with difficulty and against strong resistance. On the one hand, this creates the impression that the law is lagging behind. On the other hand, its basic principles – whether constitutional or simply enshrined in law – are always already there, wherever technology may develop.

What drives you personally on the subject of open search?

Geminn: The opportunity to contribute to the Internet losing some of the dominance of business interests.

Dare you take a look into the future – what would you like to have achieved or even enforced in about 5 years’ time?

Geminn: Ideally, in five years we will have laid the foundation for pluralization of the search engine market as well as for strengthening democracy and the rule of law.

Christian Geminn

Dr. Christian Geminn

Lawyer, managing director of the provet research group at the University of Kassel, board member, moderator of the osf working group Legal