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Internet Ethics: Views From Silicon Valley

Revisiting the Right to Be Forgotten

Media coverage of the implementation of the European Court decision on de-indexing certain search results has been less pervasive than the initial reporting on the decision itself, back in May.  At the time, much of the coverage had framed the issue in terms of clashing pairs: E.U. versus U.S; privacy versus free speech.  In The Guardian, an excellent overview of the decision described the “right to be forgotten” as a “cultural shibboleth.”

(I wrote about it back then, too, arguing that many of the stories about it were rife with mischaracterizations and false dilemmas.)

Since then, most of the conversation about online “forgetting” seems to have continued on parallel tracks—although with somewhat different clashing camps.  On one hand, many journalists and other critics of the decision (on both sides of the Atlantic) have made sweeping claims about a resulting “Internet riddled with memory holes” and articles “scrubbed from search results”; one commentator wrote that the court decision raises the question, can you really have freedom of speech if no one can hear what you are saying?” 

On the other hand, privacy advocates (again on both sides of the Atlantic) have been arguing that the decision is much narrower in scope than has generally been portrayed and that it does not destroy free speech; that Google is not, in fact, the sole and ultimate arbiter of the determinations involved in the implementation of the decision; and that even prior to the court’s decision Google search results were selective, curated, and influenced by various countries’ laws.  Recently, FTC Commissioner Julie Brill urged “thought leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to recognize that, just as we both deeply value freedom of expression, we also have shared values concerning relevance in personal information in the digital age.”

Amid this debate, in late June, Google developed and started to use its own process for complying with the decision.  But Google has also convened an advisory council that will take several months to consider evidence (including public input from meetings held in seven European capitals--Madrid, Rome, Paris, Warsaw, Berlin, London, and Brussels), before producing a report that would inform the company’s current efforts.  Explaining the creation of the council, the company noted that it is now required to balance “on a case-by-case basis, an individual’s right to be forgotten with the public’s right to information,” and added, “We want to strike this balance right. This obligation is a new and difficult challenge for us, and we’re seeking advice on the principles Google ought to apply…. That’s why we’re convening a council of experts.”

The advisory council (to whom any and all can submit comments) has been posting videos of the public meetings online. However, critics have taken issue with the group’s members (selected by Google itself), with the other presenters invited to participate at the meetings (again screened and chosen by Google), and, most recently, with its alleged rebuffing of questions from the general public. So far, many of the speakers invited to the meetings have raised questions about the appropriateness of the decision itself.

In this context, one bit of evidence makes its own public comment:  Since May, according to Google, the company has received more than 120,000 de-indexing requests. Tens of thousands of Europeans have gone through the trouble of submitting a form and the related information necessary to request that a search of their name not include certain results.  

And, perhaps surprisingly (especially given most the coverage of the decision in the U.S.), a recent poll of American Internet users, by an IT security research firmfound that a “solid majority” of them—61%--were “in favor of a ‘right to be forgotten’ law for US citizens.”

But this, too, may speak differently to different audiences. Some will see it as evidence of a vast pent-up need that had had no outlet until now. Others will see it as evidence of the tens of thousands of restrictions and “holes” that will soon open up in the Web.

So—should we worry about the impending “memory holes”?

In a talk entitled “The Internet with a Human Face,” American Web developer Maciej Ceglowski argues that “the Internet somehow contrives to remember too much and too little at the same time.” He adds,

in our elementary schools in America, if we did something particularly heinous, they had a special way of threatening you. They would say: “This is going on your permanent record.”

It was pretty scary. I had never seen a permanent record, but I knew exactly what it must look like. It was bright red, thick, tied with twine. Full of official stamps.

The permanent record would follow you through life, and whenever you changed schools, or looked for a job or moved to a new house, people would see the shameful things you had done in fifth grade. 

How wonderful it felt when I first realized the permanent record didn’t exist. They were bluffing! Nothing I did was going to matter! We were free!

And then when I grew up, I helped build it for real.

But while a version the “permanent record” is now real, it is also true that much content on the Internet is already ephemeral. The phenomenon of “link rot,” for example, affects even important legal documents.  And U.K. law professor Paul Bernal has argued that we should understand the Internet as “organic, growing and changing all the time,” and that it’s a good thing that this is so. “Having ways to delete information [online] isn’t the enemy of the Internet of the people,” Bernal writes, “much as an enemy of the big players of the Internet.”

Will Google, one of the “big players on the internet,” hear such views, too? It remains to be seen; Google’s “European grand tour,” as another UK law professor has dubbed it, will conclude on November 4th

Photograph by derekb, unmodified, under a Creative Commons license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/legalcode

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