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[July 05, 2014]
The right to be forgotten will turn the internet into a work of fiction
(Observer (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) W e will all die, and we will all be forgotten, in the end. I'm still unsophisticated enough to find that sad. But society seems fairly stoical about it, to say the least. These days thousands are campaigning for "the right to die" and "the right to be forgotten" as if they're genuinely worried it might otherwise not happen.
What will our descendants think of it? "Bloody hell, those guys were a bit glass-half-empty! What else did they want? 'The right to self-harm'? 'The right to feel humiliated'? 'The right to decompose'? 'The right to have someone you hate turn up at your funeral and claim you liked them'?" Historians of future ages could be forgiven for concluding that this whole era was clinically depressed.
Come to think of it, historians of future ages could be forgiven for thinking pretty much anything, since we're about to deny them access to reliable information. Back in May, when the European Court of Justice upheld the notion of citizens' right to be forgotten online, it sort of seemed reasonable. It's nice for people to be able to shake off their pasts. Everyone makes mistakes - but the internet turns them into virtual tattoos, indelible marks of our moments of foolishness, visible to anyone wearing Google Glasses.
Why should a few drunken student photographs preclude people's solemn applications to become accountants or nuns or Tory MPs? Not everyone who dresses up as a Nazi is really a Nazi. Or is still a Nazi. Take Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare - they're not even Nazis in that film.
The court didn't order that unflattering truths about people had to be actually deleted from websites - just that, if someone requested it, search engines should stop providing links to those sites when responding to searches that included the requester's name. This was all because of a Spanish man, Mario Costeja Gonzalez, who has spent years trying to suppress the embarrassing truth that in 1998 his house was repossessed to pay off his social security debts.
He may have won his case but it's hard to think of how he could have failed more comprehensively in his aims. I know nothing about the man apart from the fact that his house was repossessed in order to pay off his social security debts. In fact, off the top of my head, I can't think of anything else that happened in 1998. Having done a spot of Googling, I learn that it was also the year that Geri Halliwell left the Spice Girls, arguably a misstep in her career which she may now be considering applying to have concealed. Posterity already seems less likely to remember it than Gonzalez's repossession which, thanks to his efforts, may be the last event in human history to be reliably reported online.
You may think that's a hysterical response. After all, the court specified that the right to be forgotten didn't apply "if it appeared, for particular reasons, such as the role played by the data subject in public life, that the interference with his fundamental rights is justified by the preponderant interest of the general public". (Zing! Thanks ECJ - now I've nearly hit my word count!) But last week there were worrying signs that this qualification isn't working out. On Wednesday morning, Google informed the BBC that, when responding to "certain searches", it would no longer provide a link to a 2007 blog post by Robert Peston.
This was as alarming as it was puzzling, like a crossword attached to a bomb. The blog doesn't even mention Geri Halliwell. It only mentions one person: Stan O'Neal, former boss of Merrill Lynch, who was sacked for nearly ruining that bank with toxic securities. But it wasn't O'Neal who requested the article's suppression; according to Google's UK head of communications, Peter Barron, it was "an ordinary member of the public who left a comment on Robert's blog" and he reassured us that "If you search for Merrill Lynch [the blog] will appear. If you search for Stan O'Neal it will appear. Only if you search for the very narrow term of the name of the individual commenter would it not appear." Looking through the commenters, my money was on Oren Vinishavsky whose post is racist, but the piece still comes up if you Google his name. However, Googling several of the other names (for example, Peter Abatan or Derek Farmer, whose contributions are inoffensive) leads to a page carrying the disclaimer "Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe". So maybe it was one of them, though I can't understand why. Perhaps the culprit was skiving off the wedding of a despised but vengeful cousin when he posted. Either way, it's ominous because this blog is obviously a proper bit of journalism about an important thing, not just the notice of eviction of a random Spaniard.
What's going on here and what's going to happen? Google, which opposed the court's ruling, has been inundated with 70,000 requests for links to be removed from searches. The applicants reportedly include a British politician who's trying to make a comeback, someone convicted of possessing child abuse images and a doctor who doesn't want negative reviews from patients to be searchable (he should have consulted Harold Shipman on how to put a stop to that problem). Is Google deliberately using Peston's blog to demonstrate how the European judges' scheme, aimed at enabling us all to shake off the candid photography of stag dos past, might result in unadulterated censorship? The only thing I ever liked about the internet was that I thought it would help historians - that, assuming there wasn't an all-data-destroying power surge, millions of searchable written sources would be left to posterity. Without that, it's all just grooming and bookshop closures and mind-blowing opportunities for fraud. So this news that Ozymandias can apply to have records of his works suppressed in case they invoke too much despair in the Mighty - ie prospective employers - is a real blow.
You may say that Ozymandias is dead - or rather fictional but, even in the fiction, dead - so couldn't apply to have his virtual trunkless legs buried in the unsearchable sand (I will retain control of this metaphor). The internet can still be accurate about the deceased, you might think. I don't. They're the very people you can say anything about, true or false, because they cannot be libelled. Only the living have legal recourse to ensure accuracy, but why would anyone bother to get things corrected if they can effectively just delete anything written about them that they're not keen on? People's right to suppress unpleasant lies which are publicly told is being extended to unpleasant truths - until they die when it's suddenly open season on slander. The internet will become constructed entirely of two different sorts of untruth: contemporaneous unalloyed praise and posthumous defamatory hearsay.
No one has the right to be forgotten, any more than they have the right to be remembered. Our only right in this regard should be not to be lied about. And then maybe we can try to see the unflattering facts of other people's pasts in the light of our own imperfections. I wouldn't think less of someone because his house was repossessed 16 years ago. But I would if he turned out to be a liar.
(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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