A Right to be Forgotten?

International_newspaper,_Rome_May_2005In a surprising ruling, the European Union’s Court of Justice has ruled that Google must expunge information that is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” from the results of its search engine upon request. The case that drove this ruling was one where a Spanish man, Mario Gonzalez, asked to have information deleted from Google. In 1998 he received a notice that his house would go into repossession for not paying his property taxes.

You’ve probably seen these kind of notices that are put into newspapers once a year for everybody who is delinquent on their property taxes. Like most people, the taxes were paid and the house did not go to tax foreclosure. But Sr. Gonzalez had asked Google to delete the information since he found it embarrassing. The information recently came into Google when the newspaper that had printed the original notice digitized their older newspapers.

There was no dispute in this case that the facts stated in the newspaper were true, because Sr. Gonzalez had been late paying his property taxes and was properly notified of this fact along with everybody else who was late in paying his tax bill. He simply wanted this information deleted because he found it embarrassing and he thought it was no longer relevant.

As I have thought about this I think this is a dreadful ruling. It is being called having the right to be forgotten. But it is something else and it gives people the right to edit their life on line to say what they want it to say. To hell with the facts, but if anything pops up in a Google search you don’t like, then let’s get rid of it. Had a DUI ten years ago – how embarrassing. Raped somebody twenty years ago before you cleaned up your act and became a preacher – kill the story. You’re a politician and people write unflattering articles about your votes – then wipe them out.

This ruling is not about privacy, it is about changing what the world sees about you, regardless if those things are true. If this ruling is allowed to stand it will make the European Internet look like the Chinese one where ten thousand censors read the net all day to scrub out things they don’t find politically correct. Every unsavory person in the world can partake in revisionist history and make themselves look as chaste as the Flying Nun.

This ruling would make Google the policeman of what people want on the Internet instead of just a neutral purveyor of facts. In this case, Sr. Gonzalez and many of his neighbors did not pay their taxes on time. What if he did this every year, not just once in 1998? A prospective employer might want to know this sort of thing about somebody before they hire them.

The trouble with this ruling is that only the worst among us will use this ruling to erase their history. Most people would not be bothered by having true things about them on the web, but thieves, child molesters, political demagogues and con artists will have a field day with this ruling erasing the truth about themselves. There will be no police crime reports on-line because they might offend the criminals. There will not be a big pile of stories about the Westboro Baptist Church or the Nazi party because those groups will get them all expunged.

I certainly hope that some sanity comes to the courts there and this gets overturned. It is an insane ruling and it puts Google and other search engines into an impossible situation. Carried to logical conclusion it puts every newspaper and blogger at risk for having to pull down anything negative they have said about somebody, even if it is true. This protects the first amendment rights of somebody who doesn’t like something said about them in favor of the rights of somebody else to have a negative opinion of them. It effective says that anything ever printed about somebody is slander, even if it’s true.

It is a dangerous step when we start hiding the truth and can edit our lives retroactively. Mr. Gonzalez was late paying his taxes. He doesn’t dispute that he belonged on the public list of late payers. The newspaper that published that list had every right to do so, and until this ruling Google has every right to search old newspapers as parts of its search engine. The truth is the truth and none of us are going to like the consequences of people having the ability to change their public past. Once implemented this means that you can no longer have any faith in anything that you find on the Internet because it might have been edited.

2 thoughts on “A Right to be Forgotten?

  1. Dear Doug:
    Back in the 1998-2000 timeframe, I served as webmaster for our congregation. It was a much simpler job back then, mostly posting information about events and notices — and not having to worry about posting pictures, graphics and personal info., making neat screen transitions, and all sorts of other whiz-bang stuff.
    At one point, I hosted an informal debate about whether or not to post personal info. — as well as our cong. bulletin – on our website. The question became one of should the info. in the bulletin – directed to our small, locally-focused group of 120+ families – be posted on the Internet for the whole world to see.
    Some saw no problem with the postings. They questioned who in Asia or Europe would really care about a small group of MoCo residents. Others saw all sorts of red flags and privacy concerns.
    That discussion was essentially the same discussion as the thesis of your article: Should locally-focused, dated information (some personal and private) be posted digitally on the Internet, and when is it appropriate to remove this information?
    While Sr.Gonzalez has the right to have dated information, especially old and irrelevant information, removed from the Internet, the public does have the right to know the truth. The question becomes at what point does one side take precedence over the other?
    My guess is that many newspapers and media outlets have been internally having this same conversation for many years now.
    Almost none, to my knowledge — especially the large-scale companies — have posted their print copies to the Internet for exactly this reason: the audience of these media is different, and the reach of each is different. Thus, the ramifications and responsibilities are going to be different.
    To those in charge of making these determinations, good luck…

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  2. There is a line that defines where the right of the public to know and my right to keep my life private ends. For instance, I don’t want Google to be listing the prescription medicines I take or the books I read. I think its almost universally understood that such things are private.

    What Mr. Gonzales did was quite public. He didn’t pay his property taxes on time, and like most places the local government published that in the newspaper to shame him and others into paying the taxes. If he didn’t want his name in the newspaper he should have paid his taxes on time. If he gets arrested for a crime and is the police records which most places put on line it’s the same thing. You do something that society has deemed ought to be public, then it’s public. You may not like that, but your gripe is with the local government who posts your name in the newspaper rather than send you a follow-up bill reminder.

    Privacy is an incredibly tricky issue and there are many cases of privacy being violated. But I don’t think this is one of them. It makes no sense to give people the right to remove things like this from the internet.

    I can’t even imagine the practical consequences of this. I have no idea how Google could responsibly respond to millions of such requests. You might notice that one of the provisions of the law is that if Google doesn’t remove the offending material you can take it to court. I think if I am Google that I would make every request end up in court. This is the natural way to winnow does the number of actual take-down orders. The only problem with that is that rich guys will take these to court while poor people won’t. We could end up with an Internet where the history of rich people is scrubbed but nobody else. That is just as unsavory. It’s a real conundrum.

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