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Europe Union High Court Establishes The Right To Be Forgotten

on Tuesday, May. 13th

The Internet has proven to be the ultimate “genie in a bottle” tale: we collectively uncorked the power of an interconnected network of computers and found ourselves with an expanded sense of self and an eroding layer of privacy.

Today the European Union is doing something about the latter. Europe’s high court handed down a ruling that states that Google must give users of the search engine the right to delete links about themselves in certain cases. This puts the burden of privacy protection on the search engines.

The New York times has a rich write-up on the front page:

“Most surprising is that the court has come down firmly in favor of a ‘right to be forgotten,’ ” said Richard Cumbley, a London-based partner at the law firm Linklaters. “Given that the E.U. has spent two years debating this right as part of the reform of E.U. privacy legislation, it is ironic that the E.C.J. has found it already exists in such a striking manner,” he said, referring to the European Court of Justice.

The problem at hand starts with the fact that Internet doesn’t live by the same rules of time that we humans do.

To borrow a frame from media theorist Douglas Rushkoff: the Internet is a largely atemporal beast. Data goes in and it stays there, ready to be called up at a moment’s notice (barring some disastrous disk crash). The human mind is much more fallible, so too are older methods of accessing public information.

The court case that brought this all on was that of a Spanish man who wanted some old debt information erased from the online records of the newspaper La Vanguardia, and for the links to the articles to be erased from Google. The information was no longer relevant, he claimed, and that was damaging his reputation.

Side note on an irony: the whole world now knows that Mario Costeja had financial troubles back in the ‘90s. So that kinda backfired there, guy.

Here’s the more troubling part of this ruling: the bureaucratic burden for clearing these take down requests will lie with Google and the other search engines. They will likely err on the side of caution (i.e. not wanting to get sued) and a pattern of acquiescing to the demands will emerge.

This will be great for people who are need to cover up embarrassing photos that potential employers can find via search. It will also be a field day for shady types of all stripes—you know, the usual suspects:

criminals, politicians, businesspeople—to clean up after themselves and make it harder for their wrongdoing to be dug up. Scoundrels are the people who will take the greatest advantage of the right to be forgotten, because sociopaths are hardwired to exploit every advantage they can find.

Which isn’t to say that some kind of “sunset laws” on public information and court records shouldn’t be in place. I just question the logic of leaving the responsibility for such mechanisms in the hands of risk adverse companies who are structurally bound to be as lazy as possible when it comes to activities that don’t generate profit.

Imagine a world where Donald Trump’s social media team spends all day erasing evidence of their boss’ improprieties. That’s one place this path can lead.

A “right to be forgotten” doesn’t exist in the U.S. yes, and perhaps some form of one should, but how such a right would be enforced is critically important to balance privacy and the public trust.

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