The right to be forgotten concept is the right to free oneself from being stigmatized for events that happened in the past.
It sounds like a great idea.
For example, let’s say a person gets drunk as a teenager and causes an accident. The local papers pick up the accident, the trial and the sentencing. There was lots of coverage.
That person may go through all the required programs, pay their debt to society, permanently quit drinking, start a family, launch a business, become active in programs that help young people avoid drunk driving and so on.
But then 10 or 20 years after the accident, a Web search on that person’s name may bring up mostly stories about the car accident. Years later, despite all the persons efforts, the imbalance of links about the accident may affect personal and business relationships and unfairly paint a productive person who’s really all about preventing drunk driving as a reckless drunk driver.
The concept has been applied to search engines by law in the European Union, Argentina and elsewhere. But activity around the right to be forgotten in the EU has brought it front and center as a hot-button topic in technology circles.
Unfortunately, the way the EU is building the concept into law is the single greatest threat to the Internet of this decade. In fact 2014 may go down in history as the year Europe ruined the Internet.
The current debate started when the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice ruled against Google in a right to be forgotten case. A Spanish man named Mario Costeja González wanted Google to remove a link to an article published in 1998 about his debt and home foreclosure. He had paid his debt, but a Google search linked prominently to a now-outdated article stigmatizing him as a debtor with financial problems.
The ruling required Google to not only remove the stigmatizing results when anyone searched for Gonzalez’s name, but for all search engines to establish policies, practices and resources for anyone to petition them to have similarly stigmatizing content removed as results from searches for their names.
The criteria for removal are that the right to be forgotten applies to the search results that appear for a specific person’s name. There is also a long list of situational rules that attempt to prevent the system from being abused by public figures, politicians, criminals and those who might want to simply make search results make them look better.
The policy is an attempt to prevent the fact that the Internet never forgets from violating the individual right to privacy.
Unfortunately, this policy does far more harm than good.
The right to be forgotten amounts to censorship.
The American Library Association defines censorship as follows: “The change in the access status of material, made by a governing authority or its representatives. Such changes include: exclusion, restriction, removal, or age/grade level changes.”
That’s not to say that the EU’s right-to-be-forgotten censorship is perfectly comparable to censorship in, say, China. In that country, censorship of Internet references to people (like the Dalai Lama) and events (such as the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters) are designed to suppress support for alternative political opinions beyond those that are approved by the Chinese Communist Party. Censorship is used as a form of political repression.
Right-to-be-forgotten censorship is falsely thought to be similar in kind to French and German censorship of Nazism or Holocaust denial that are intended to protect minorities or individuals.
Yes, both kinds of censorship are designed to protect the rights of people (rather than the exclusivity of political parties). What’s different about right-to-be-forgotten censorship is that it’s only for search engines. Other forms of European censorship are applied to all media, including books, newspaper articles and so on. Right-to-be-forgotten censorship erases only content in search results—it outlaws links to legal content.
In the EU way of thinking, it’s OK to censor search engines because they’re new and therefore not specifically covered by free speech laws; politically safe since they’d never get away with censoring newspapers over the same content; and they’re easy to enforce since there are far fewer search engines to go after than publishing companies and book publishers.
EU’s Right to Be Forgotten Rules Amount to Search Engine Censorship
It exposes the obsolescence of EU political thinking about the validity of modern life. Old media are special and to be protected from interference. New media can be meddled with because new things are illegitimate.
Right to be forgotten censorship is different also because the government isn’t doing it. They’ve outsourced the job to corporations. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and other search engines choose how to apply the law, and these companies would naturally differ in how they enforce the rules. So links for a specific person’s name might be censored on Google Search but not Bing.
It also favors the wealthy, aristocrats, gangsters, politicians and others, while disadvantaging the poor, minorities and the young. Rich and powerful people can hire consultants, researchers and employees to plan a reputation-management strategy for maximum public cleansing of reputation. People at the bottom of European society may not have the time, money, language skills or knowledge to use the system.
Another problem is that the effect of the right to be forgotten is that search engines simply become inaccurate. Search engines don’t exist to tell the truth about reality, only to tell the truth about what’s on the Internet at any given time. With each passing month, the right-to-be-forgotten rules are making search engines increasingly unreliable and false.
One criticism of the right-to-be-forgotten push is that it’s really designed to counter American cultural influence. Search engines are incredibly powerful arbiters of what content is valued, popular and influential. And all the major search engines are American.
Sabotaging this foreign source of influence by making them inaccurate and therefore less useful is seen as a way to fight back against American cultural imperialism, which used to be flippantly referred to on the Continent as “Coca-colonization.” But lately it has been flippantly referred to in France as “GAFA,” which stands for Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.
The worst and most dangerous aspect of Europe’s right-to-be-forgotten law has emerged in the EU’s clumsy and incredibly short-sighted attempts to prevent the rules from being circumvented, specifically in two ways.
The first way Google has tried to “circumvent” the right to be forgotten is by informing news publishers when index changes affect their content. In some cases, publications have re-published some stories so they’ll be re-indexed by the search engines and thereby try to avoid the inability of Web users to find the stories. So EU authorities have ordered Google to stop informing them—essentially censoring Google from talking about censored search results.
The second way is that as the European version of Google becomes less accurate and less reliable, European users will naturally choose the American version—Google.com—instead. Soon the EU may order Google to censor all versions of its search engine worldwide.
The epicenter of European resistance to American cultural influence has for many decades been France. And France is leading the charge to censor globally. The French data protection authority is headed by Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, who also heads the EU’s group of 28 national privacy regulators and is lobbying hard (and probably successfully) to impose France’s rule for global censorship to the entire EU.
That’s right: European governments are ordering the censorship of American search engines in America. And everywhere else, too.
This is the most dangerous aspect of the right to be forgotten by far. If Google accepts this order, and it’s allowed to stand, it sets a precedent that any censoring government can assert its own right to censor globally. So China will ban mentions of the Dalai Lama and Tiananmen Square on search engines worldwide. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan will insist that pictures of women with uncovered hair be banned globally. Turkey will require the search engines to erase all references to an Armenian Genocide.
Each of these censoring governments will claim the same rights as the EU—that the search engine inaccuracies are imposed for the good of society, for the sake of public morality and to promote accuracy in the search results.
In short, the EU is initiating a cascading series of events that will ruin the Internet by making anything censored anywhere censored everywhere.
The EU’s right to be forgotten rules are extremely dangerous, unfair and wrong.
Everyone who cares about the Internet, about freedom of speech and access to Internet search engines that actually reflect what’s on the Internet should vocally and actively oppose the EU’s right to be forgotten.