The Right to Censor

Two years ago this month, the highest court in the European Union declared all of their citizens had a “right to be forgotten”. Specifically, the justices said anyone could request that Google (and other search engines) remove from their results links to information about themselves that was out of date or in other ways irrelevant.

In the time since, the ruling has raised many questions about the concept, and created many more problems than it has solved.

Starting with the fact the court handed Google a great deal of power in determining what information should be “forgotten”. This at the same time the European Union is very concerned about the amount of data being collected by many large, multi-national corporations like Google, as well as where it’s being kept.

Then there’s the confusion over the requests themselves and what happens to the information. Completing the online form doesn’t automatically lead to removing a link. According to a recent report “Google refuses roughly 70 percent to 75 percent of requests”, with the top two reasons being the information concerns the professional activity of the requester or the fact that they “are at the origin of this content”. They also get a lot of compaints from people outside the EU who don’t understand why they can’t play in this game.

Plus, the information “removed” is still stored somewhere on the web. Deleting articles from search results has pissed off European news organizations, some of which now maintain lists of their forgotten links. Is Google now obligated to remove results that bring up those pages? Or to stories about links that have been removed? TechDirt, a Silicon Valley news site that deals in technology and government policy, has been playing with these questions and more by regularly posting on the right to be forgotten with links to “disappeared” stories included, to observe how quickly they are removed.

As amusing as some of the stories related to “right to be forgotten” are, there is a really scary aspect to all this. This is all part of a concerted, sometimes aggressive effort by governments all over the world to control the flow of information.

And not just in their countries. France, for example, has told Google they must “respect French “right to be forgotten” rulings worldwide”. The company is pushing back (for now) but the world is full of disreputable government officials who would like the power to disappear more than just embarrassing information.

Anyway, this issue of censoring digital information is just getting started. In terms of all of recorded history, the internet is a very new communications medium, and very much unlike other undemocratic, more easily controlled channels. It will be interesting to watch just how badly governments and large corporations can screw up the web and the creative new ways of circumventing the blocks people will develop.

For now, happy second anniversary to the “right to be forgotten”, although I’m not sure anyone interested in an open web should be celebrating.

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