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Resisting Censorship

Following the results of the off-off-year election last November here in Virginia, we’re starting to see some major changes, some that are long over due.

Both chambers of the legislature voted Wednesday to ratify the Equal Right Amendment (only forty years late) and committees in both houses are seriously considering several common sense laws to restrict the sale of guns.

However, legislators also have some smaller but still significant proposals to consider, regarding legal attempts to shut down free speech.

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.

World (Information) Domination

Many writers marvel at this age of information. A large and growing collection of the world’s knowledge is now available to anyone with an internet connection. Think of the learning, the transparency, the wisdom.

The reality, of course, is that information is largely filtered through web search engines – mostly Google. And many governments around the world are working to control that filter.

Specifically, they are trying to force Google and other search companies to hide results that they or their citizens find objectionable for one reason or another. Not just in their countries, but world-wide. The so-called “right to be forgotten”.

The executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, parent of Wikipedia, is worried that this “creates ugly precedents that could jeopardize the future of our open and free Internet”.

If any country can demand the worldwide removal of search results, vast sections of history, science and culture could disappear from the global Internet. This could infringe on our ability to learn about the history of Tiananmen Square, the potential medical properties of cannabis, the discoveries of Darwin, or unsavoury allegations against the U.S. president-elect.

If every country had the chance to punch memory holes in the Internet, we would swiftly find ourselves with history scrubbed of essential records. Politicians could challenge ugly but accurate charges. Corporations could erase histories of fraud and double-dealing. The implications are unprecedented.

She uses the example of a case before the Canadian Supreme Court in which one company is trying to force Google to hide information about a competitor. But that’s certainly not the only one.

France’s data protection authority is also demanding Google “apply the French balance between privacy and free expression in every country by delisting French right to be forgotten removals for users everywhere”. Other governments in Europe and elsewhere are watching closely.

Here in the US, there are debates over whether we should have a “right to be forgotten” online, similar to the concept established by the European Courts for their citizens in 2014. However, be careful what you wish for.

The unintended consequences of “forgetting” history are just now starting to emerge. Like handing a private company the power to censor information. Or allowing government agencies and politicians control over information sources available to not just their citizens, but the rest of the world.

These Are Not the Borders You’re Looking For

The European Union is making a great effort to control what their citizens view on the web by, among other legalities, ordering search engines to “forget” selected pieces of data. But that is not at all the most absurd recent attempt at censorship.

The government of India wants to control geography.

Specifically, a proposed law in that country would “ban maps or satellite images of the country unless they are approved by government”.

The bill bans all types of geospatial information, maps, raw data or photographs, acquired by any means, including satellite photography.

Offenders could be fined up to 1bn rupees (£10.4m). [around $15m USD]

It also requires anyone who has already gathered such information to apply for a licence to keep it.

It was designed to regulate both the creation and distribution of geospatial information in India “which is likely to affect the security, sovereignty and integrity” of the country, the Ministry of Home Affairs said.


Google Maps already provides very different information for certain regions of the world, including the long disputed border between India and Pakistan. But the government judging the “truth” of photographs and raw data takes this particular overreach to a whole new level.

And it probably won’t be long before India follows France’s lead and directs Google and other providers of geospatial information to only show their view of the world to everyone on the planet.

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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