On the ‘Right to Be Forgotten’

While Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is arguing today both that there’s really not a lot new to the European Court of Justice decision to order Google to adjust its search results to accommodate the right to privacy for one individual and that it really won’t be a problem because Google already handles loads of copyright removal requests very quickly, the decision has also sparked some really rather silly comments all over the media, usually from the neoliberal and libertarian right, that this is a kind of censorship or that it will open the door to states being able to control search results.

I think it’s vital to remember that there’s really an obvious difference between personal privacy, corporate copyright and state secrecy. I really don’t think it’s helpful in discussion to conflate all these as somehow all giving potential precedent to the other (and I should be clear that Mayer-Schönberger is not doing this, he’s merely pointing out the ease with which Google already accommodates copyright takedown notices to show that it’s not hard or expensive for them to comply with this ruling). State attempts to remove things that it finds inconvenient are not the same as the protection of personal privacy, and neither are the same as copyright. This decision is not a precedent for censorship by governments or control by corporations and we should very strongly guard against any attempts to use it in this way.

Google algorithms already do a whole range of work that we don’t see and to suggest that they are (or were) open, free and neutral and will now be ‘biased’ or ‘censored’ after this decision is only testament to how much we rely on Google to a large extent, unthinkingly. This is where I start to part company with Mayer-Schönberger is in his dismissal of the importance of this case as just being the same as a records deletion request in any other media. It isn’t; it’s much more significant.

You are sill perfectly free to make the effort to consult public records about the successful complainant in the case (or anyone else) in the ways you always have. The case was not brought against those holding or even making the information public. What the case sought to argue, and what the court’s verdict does, is to imply that there are good social reasons to limit the kind of comprehensive and effortless search that Google and other search engines provide, when it comes to the personal history of private individuals – not to allow that one thing that is over and one to continue to define the public perception of a person anywhere in the world and potentially for the rest of their life (and beyond). Something being public is not the same as something being easily and instantaneously available to everyone forever. In essence it provides for a kind of analog of the right of privacy in public places for personal data. And it also recognizes that the existence and potentials of any information technology should not be what defines society, rather social priorities should set limits on how information technologies are used.

Personally, I believe that this is a good thing. However, as the politics of information play out over the next few years, I also have no doubt that it’s something that will be come up again and again in courts across the world…

PS: I first wrote about this back in 2011 here – I think I can still stand behind what I though then!

Spain vs. Google or Freedom of Expression vs. the Right to Be Forgotten

Several outlets are reporting today, the interesting clash between Spanish courts and Google. The argument is over whether Google should carry articles that have been challenged by Spanish citizens as breaching their privacy. An injunction was won in the courts by the Spanish data protection commissioner over publication of material that is being challenged under privacy legislation.

Clearly there are two main issues here. One is the specific issue of whether Google, as a search engine, can be considered as a publisher, or as it claims, simply an intermediary which publishes nothing, only linking to items published by others. This is important for Google as a business and for those who use it.

But the other is a more interesting issue which is the deeper question of what is going on here which is the struggle between two kinds of rights. The right to freedom of expression, to be able to say what one likes, is a longstanding one in democracies, however it is almost nowhere absolute. The problem in a search-engine enabled information age, is that these exceptions, which relate to both the (un)truth of published allegations (questions of libel and false accusation) and of privacy and to several other values, are increasingly challenged by the ability of people in one jurisdiction to access the same (libellous, untrue or privacy-destructive) information from outside that jurisdiction via the Internet.

In Spain, the question has apparently increasingly been framed in terms of a new ‘right to be forgotten’ or ‘right to delete’. This is not entirely new – certainly police records in many countries have elements that are time-limited, but these kinds of official individually beneficial forgettings are increasingly hard to maintain when information is ‘out there’ proliferating, being copied, reposted and so on.

This makes an interesting contrast with the Wikileaks affair. Here, where it comes to the State and corporations, questions of privacy and individual rights should not be used even analogically. The state may assert ‘secrecy’ but the state has no ‘right of privacy’. Secrecy is an instrumental concept relating to questions of risk. Corporations may assert ‘confidentiality’ but this is a question of law and custom relating to the regulation of the economy, not to ‘rights’.

Privacy is a right that can only be attached to (usually) human beings in their unofficial thoughts, activities and existence. And the question of forgetting is really a spatio-temporal extension of the concept of privacy necessary in an information society. Because the nature of information and communication has changed, privacy has to be considered over space and through time in a way that was not really necessary (or at least not for so many people so much of the time) previously.

This is where Google’s position comes back into play. Its insistence on neutrality is premised on a libertarian notion of information (described by Erik Davis some time ago as a kind of gnostic American macho libertarianism that pervades US thinking on the Internet). But if this is ‘freedom of information’ as usually understood in democratic societies, it does have limits and an extreme political interpretation of such freedom cannot apply. Should Google therefore abandon the pretence of neutrality and play a role in helping ‘us’ forget things that are untrue, hurtful and private to individuals?

The alternative is challenging: the idea that not acting is a morally ‘neutral’ position is clearly incorrect because it presages a new global norm of information flow presaged on not forgetting, and on the collapse of different jurisdictional norms of privacy. In this world, whilst privacy may not be dead, the law can no longer be relied on to enforce it and other methods from simple personal data management, to more ‘outlaw’ technological means of enforcement will increasingly be the standard for those who wish to maintain privacy. This suggests that money and/or technical expertise will be the things that will allow one to be forgotten, and those without either will be unable to have meaningful privacy except insofar as one is uninteresting or unnoticed.

Nineteen Eighty-Four in Spain

Tim Robbins and The Actors’ Gang are putting on a fascinating-looking adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in Barcelona. The production deliberately ties in with contemporary concerns about surveillance in the city, and in Spain and beyond. This production has already toured the USA, and you can find out more about it here.

Of course, this is far from the first adaptation of Orwell’s novel. Earlier this year, which is the 5oth anniversary of the publication of this seminal work, the UK’s National Media Museum put on a special version with John Hurt playing Winston Smith as he did in the 1984 cinema version, directed by Michael Radford (with its chilly soundtrack by The Eurythmics, which many regard as inappropriate but I really like!). The best version I have seen was done by Northern Stage in my old home city of Newcastle. This was a violent, uncompromising version (see this review in The Guardian) mixing live cinema and theatre. There was also the much earlier 1956 film directed by Michael Anderson and starring Edmond O’Brien, which shared with the climate in which the novel was written, the air of post-war ruin and privation (or at least its memory). Of course, one could regard Terry Gilliam’s Brazil as a riff off Nineteen Eighty-Four – but he’s never a director for a straight version!

(thanks to Aaron Martin for pointing me in the direction of the Barcelona production…)

Another day, another ‘intelligent’ surveillance system…

Yet another so-called ‘intelligent’ surveillance system has been announced. This one comes from Spain and is designed to detect abnormal behaviour on and around pedestrian crossings.

Comparison between the reasoning models of the artificial system and a theoretical human monitor in a traffic-based setting. (Credit: ORETO research group / SINC)
Comparison between the reasoning models of the artificial system and a theoretical human monitor in a traffic-based setting. (Credit: ORETO research group / SINC)

The article in Science Daily dryly notes that it could be used “to penalise incorrect behaviour”… Now, I know there’s nothing intrinsically terribly wrong with movement detection systems, but the trend towards the automation of fines and punishment, nor indeed of everyday life and interaction more broadly, is surely not one that we should be encouraging. I’ve seen these kinds of systems work in demonstrations (most recently at the research labs of Japan Railways, more of which later…) but, despite their undoubtedly impressive capabilities and worthwhile potential, they leave me with a sinking feeling, and a kind of mourning for the further loss of little bits of humanity. Maybe that’s just a personal emotion, but I don’t think we take enough account of both the generation and loss of emotions in response to increasing surveillance and control.

Further Reference: David Vallejo, Javier Albusac, Luis Jiménez, Carlos González y Juan Moreno. (2009) ‘A cognitive surveillance system for detecting incorrect traffic behaviors,’ Expert Systems with Applications 36 (7): 10503-10511