Legislating Government Censorship

In May 2014, the high court of the European Union declared that EU citizens had a “right to be forgotten” online, derived from the Union’s stringent personal privacy laws. The information is actually forgotten, of course, just removed from our collective memories, also known as Google.

The “right to be forgotten” in the European Union originated from a court ruling demanding Google and search engines remove links to a story that embarrassed a Spanish man because it detailed a previous home repossession. The story was not factually inaccurate. He insisted it was no longer relevant and that it embarrassed him, and the court agreed he had the right to have the information censored from search engines.

Recently courts in the EU have found exceptions to that absolute right, but here in the US many lawmakers and pundits have speculated as to whether we should have the same right and the Europeans.

This week, two members of the New York legislature decided the answer is yes, and have introduced their own interpretation that actually goes beyond the rights granted to European citizens. Because if anything is worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.

Censorship 1

Their bill would require the removal of “content about such individual, and links or indexes to any of the same, that is ‘inaccurate’, ‘irrelevant’, ‘inadequate’ or ‘excessive’”, from both search engines and the original website, within 30 days of a request.

Basically, with some exceptions for information about certain crimes and matters of “significant current public interest”, the law requires anything posted on the web that someone claims is “no longer material to current public debate or discourse” must be forgotten. Under penalty of some heavy fines.

What could possibly go wrong with a poorly defined (at what point does content become “excessive”?) law like that?

So, under this bill, newspapers, scholarly works, copies of books on Google Books and Amazon, online encyclopedias (Wikipedia and others) — all would have to be censored whenever a judge and jury found (or the author expected them to find) that the speech was “no longer material to current public debate or discourse” (except when it was “related to convicted felonies” or “legal matters relating to violence” in which the subject played a “central and substantial” role). And of course the bill contains no exception even for material of genuine historical interest; after all, such speech would have to be removed if it was “no longer material to current public debate.” Nor is there an exception for autobiographic material, whether in a book, on a blog or anywhere else. Nor is there an exception for political figures, prominent businesspeople and others.

I’m not a Constitutional expert, but even I realize a law like this would never survive a many First Amendment challenge.

But beyond the legal issues there is a far more concerning 800-pound gorilla. Right now we have far too many “leaders” who lust for tools that would allow the government to review and censor the online discussions of it’s citizens.

We don’t need a right to be forgotten in the US as much as we do a right to be left alone.