The right to be forgotten

By Toby Manhire In The Internaut

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Twelve years had passed since Mario Costeja González’s house was auctioned off to pay his debts, and the Spanish lawyer reckoned that was long enough. It wasn’t fair, he argued, that a report of this sorry episode remained online, blighting his public profile.

And the highest European court agrees. After a protracted legal wrangle, the European Court of Justice has ruled that Google must remove the link to the report in Vanguarida – though the story itself could remain.

The remarkable decision has triggered a global debate about the memory of the internet, and the so-called “right to be forgotten”.

Here’s Lev Grossman, for Time:

Whether or not its ruling is enforceable, the Court of Justice has hit upon an elusive truth about the way we live now, one that’s probably easier to see from Luxembourg than it is from Mountain View. Public information isn’t just public: the meaning of public has changed. Just as we’re altering the physical climate we live in, we’ve changed our information environment too. Information used to propagate slowly, pooling and collecting in some places but not others. Now it propagates instantly and evenly, everywhere at once. The past is supposed to fade and blur, but the Internet keeps our entire lives relentlessly in focus, for everyone, forever.

Among the most vocal critics has been Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

He tells the Atlantic:

As far as I know, this is unprecedented. It is certainly shocking to have come from the EU rather than from an authoritarian state ..

Suppose, as seems likely due to the noise in this case, the legal and truthful information that Google is supposed to suppress is repeated in major news sources, blogs, tweets. Is Google required to start censoring large swathes of the web? Are they required to build a complex censorship engine to block true information that a court has ruled must not be linked to? It’s crazy.

Academic and commentator Jeffrey Rosen, in a paper on the subject from 2012, again quoted in the Atlantic, says such a ruling “could transform Google … into a censor-in-chief for the European Union, rather than a neutral platform.”

One of the most interesting thinkers in this area, Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law and computer science at Harvard, offers a constructive alternative in the Dallas Morning News.

What if search engine companies were to think more creatively about how such searches might work? In 2007, Google admirably experimented in this area, introducing a feature to its Google News aggregator that allowed people quoted or mentioned in a news article indexed by Google News to add a comment next to that article in the search results. Such participants could offer readers of Google News an explanation, an apology, or a reason to discount whatever it was they were about to read. (Academics were among the first users of the feature, often adding a comment to contextualize something a newspaper reporter had quoted them as saying.) But Google ultimately abandoned the feature.

That’s too bad. If search engines allowed for such comments generally, they might be able to give you more influence over the information about you online — without giving you the power to censor.

For González, meanwhile, his past strife is now documented across the internet. The original story, indeed, is recounted in the judgement of the court, which is available, and searchable online, points out the Atlantic’s Matt Ford. The headline on his article: “Will Europe Censor This Article?”

As Time notes, “no one’s ever going to forget about that real estate auction now”.

See also: Wikipedia – the print edition

German former first lady sues Google over autocomplete

Google joins the DC lobbying giants

Wikipedia future hangs in the balance

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More by Toby Manhire

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