The “right to be forgotten” ruling was handed down a year ago and caused a rumble in the tech world, but it has gradually grown to a roar. With the latest developments-most notably by a French regulator’s order that the mandate be globally implemented by Google- the ante has been raised. Initially, search engines and free speech advocates, called the ruling vague and overbroad and warned of dire consequences for free expression and the historical record if the right to be forgotten was widely enacted. Now, they say, their fears are being realized and with them the possible future of free speech and the right to know hangs in the balance. And it bears all the earmarks of a situation about to spiral out of control.
If the initial ruling last year by Europe’s highest court stunned American Internet companies, the most recent regulator’s request is an outright worry. For now, under the guise of privacy, a huge eraser is coming for Google search results across the globe, including back home in the U.S.). A tech industry think tank fellow, Emma Llansó stated that, “When we’re talking about a broadly scoped right to be forgotten that’s about altering the historical record or making information that was lawfully public no longer accessible to people, I don’t see a way to square that with a fundamental right to access to information.”
At first glance, the initial ECJ ruling might have seemed innocuous, even noble. But under further scrutiny there appears much to be troubled about in the way the ruling is playing out. At stake here also is the competing notion of a public’s right to know. No, make that the public’s need, desire and obligation to know. Yes, it may be discomforting or disconcerting to have one’s excess baggage or mistakes of the past forever etched into recorded history, but consider the flip-side where truth is buried forever. For example, the Holocaust took place decades ago, but would you want some men to escape punishment for participating in it because it happened in the past? That may be an extreme example but is relevant nonetheless.
Critics include news organizations and outlets, such as the BBC and Telegraph and they lament the law which would erase hundreds of Google links to news articles. Advocates of the removals are quick to argue that examples like this are overblown and represent a minority of link removal requests. This may be true for now. But court rulings often take on a life of their own over time. Yes, a million requests compared against billions of bits of information on file may seem like a small amount comparatively. But remember this is just the beginning, relatively speaking. It’s only been a year. Let’s look at what has transpired in only a year to get a truer gauge of what the future might be for “right to be forgotten”.
Since the ECJ decision, other countries with arguably quite repressive regimes with more of a vested interest in keeping truths buried, or better, removed, have joined in the chorus of nations pushing for delinking based on Europe’s action. These are some Latin American and Asian nations. So, with the genie out of the bottle, the march to distort history may have commenced. On the Continent, with specific countries’ designations such as Google.fr and Google.de empowered to make delisting requests, recently the French data protection agency, CNIL, has ordered Google to remove links from its database, Google.com, across all locations – not just country specific ones. The effect of such an order could be chaotic.
Google is alarmed at the prospect which could never probably be allowed in the US given its First Amendment protections. For its part, Google is on the record with a comment by Peter Fleischer, its global privacy counsel. “We believe that no one country should have the authority to control what content someone in a second country can access.” Google is joined in their dissent by Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, which has felt some sting from removal requests. He is worried about a competition to squeeze the most out of Google to the detriment of freedom of speech. “It’s a race to the bottom. Governments all around the world will immediately say, ‘Great, we’ll ask for things to be deleted worldwide.”
Proponents of the ruling say that free speech will not be affected- merely privacy. But often the two are difficult to separate, such as in the case of a private person assuming the mantle of politician and public figure. Thin of a Donald Trump. There is a dangerous precedent at play here. As an American living in Europe, I am not particularly keen to have a French regulator determine what I can view. It looks like the “right to be forgotten” is turning into “no right to public information.”