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!