Q.Sometimes when I meet someone new or I have business with someone, I search for information about them on the internet. Is this an invasion of privacy? After all, I only obtain publicly available information.
A. Finding publicly available information through an internet search service such as Google has become so common that we have invented a new verb, to google someone. But as so often happens in our rapidly changing world, technology is moving a little faster than our ethics and our etiquette. Let's discuss the ethical issues involved in different kinds of web search.
In Jewish law, the fact that information is publicly available does not mean that it can be freely disseminated. There are two different areas of law where privacy protection extends even to information which is not secret.
Jewish law states that gratuitous gossip about personal details is forbidden even if the information itself is not derogatory.
One area is the prohibition on idle gossip. The Torah teaches: "Don't go as a talebearer among your people" (Leviticus 19:16). Rashi's commentary explains that a talebearer (in Hebrew 'roche'l) is like a spy ('rogel') who goes from house to house hearing what gossip is told about someone and then spreading it about. The information is all known, but the forbidden talebearer puts it all in one place and disseminates it. Jewish law states that gratuitous gossip about personal details is forbidden even if the information itself is not derogatory, since people don't want to have all their private information made public. (1)
Another area is privacy among neighbors. The Talmud states that "Loss of privacy (literally, damage through seeing) is a kind of damage." (2) The consequence of this law is that neighbors can be compelled to pay for partitions to keep them from viewing a neighbor's courtyard. Even when the protected area is one that is visible to passers-by, the neighbor's ability to see is a greater invasion of privacy, since the neighbor sees constantly. (3)
These sources can be readily extrapolated to the case of web searches. In both cases, there is a distinction between casual and legitimate observation of public information, as in a aside in conversation or a person's activities viewed in passing by a stranger, and the forbidden practice of deliberate efforts to concentrate and disseminate information, for example by a habitual gossip or a neighbor who observes someone constantly.
In the case of web searches, it would be permissible to do a simple web search of someone's name, to see some of their most prominent activities. This is today's equivalent of a simple inquiry to a mutual friend, without deliberate prying into details beyond what is easily available. In the early days of web searches even this might have been questionable, as people posted information about themselves and others on private websites without any inkling that it would be easily available to all cyberspace, and without any simple way to remove information. Today people are better informed about these search engines and are able to take more control over information about themselves. Also, the search engines themselves make it easier for a person to block information from search results or remove it. I believe that these safeguards are sufficient to make a simple websearch permissible.
However, this is different than making a concerted effort to uncover all available public information about somebody. For example, information garnered from a simple search could be used to identify other sites where information is posted but blocked from search engines, or to identify web aliases that a person uses to intentionally hide their identity in internet communications. This would be forbidden in the case of a private individual. But it is a legitimate and widely used practice to find information about a business, since a business must assume that competitors will seek any publicly available information and take responsibility for controlling such information. (1)
There's a difference between glancing and scrutinizing; likewise, there's a difference between a superficial examination of easily available information and a deliberate effort to find private information of an individual, which can easily turn into an invasion of privacy.
I believe that it is a bad idea to google someone before a first date, if the date was recommended by a reliable mutual acquaintance. It is likely to harm the mystery and romance of making a new acquaintance, to create an awkward asymmetry in the knowledge each individual has about the other, and also to create preconceptions which will be an obstacle to creating an objective judgment of the date.
SOURCES: (1) Hafetz Haim volume I 2:13 note 28. (2) Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 2b. (3) Maimonides Code, laws of neighbors 3:5.
The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.