Using the Internet to erase history

The day Google opened its online submission process to comply with the European “right to be forgotten” ruling, the company received 12,000 requests – one every seven seconds – from users demanding that information be pulled from search results.

The cost of ignoring those requests, or getting them “wrong” in the eyes of the EU courts? Google could face fines of a billion dollars per incident. In the European Union, the process of whitewashing history is underway.

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With the ruling, the court is forcing Google to perform the impossible balancing act between the newly invented “right” be forgotten and the Internet’s unique power to preserve, contextualize, and disseminate information.

To its credit, Google has taken the EU court’s ruling in stride, promising that requests will be evaluated to balance the privacy rights of the individual with the public’s right to know and distribute information. Hopefully this public interest assessment will help to limit the atrocious precedent set by the European Commission.

But there is only so much Google can do to limit the butterfly effect of technological, social, and economic impacts of the decision, not only in Europe but around the world.

On its face, the decision affects nearly 500 million citizens throughout 28 countries, but in practice the ramifications will be felt far wider if the decision is not overturned or remedied. The Internet we know today is the product of a light-touch legal and regulatory framework that advocates have fought for years to uphold.

While those tenets have held for years in the Internet policy space, the EU decision is just the latest sign that they are beginning to erode. As free expression protections begin to fall, the Internet itself will have to adapt.

The right to be forgotten forces an Internet company to interpret – and censor – history, rather than simply creating tools to help us better understand history. The decision tells users that they can rewrite unpleasant history, even if that history may be instructive and important to users around the world.

Although the decision is intended to protect European citizens’ privacy, this ruling opens the door for anyone to request that unfavorable online content be suppressed from search results. It’s going to be a burden to websites and a nightmare for the public interest. One third of the suppression requests regarded fraud and scams.  And more than 10 percent of the requests received came from people seeking to suppress search results that reveal their prior child pornography arrests. It’s hard to see how you serve the public interest by hiding information that helps Europeans protect themselves and their children.

Perhaps most alarming, the “right to be forgotten” turns the Internet – an archive of news, trends, and culture – into an instrument for censorship, setting in motion a range of unintended consequences.  It contradicts the EU’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes a freedom of expression, since someone can now suppress accurate and lawful statements made by another. And by taking the power from content creators and neutral platforms freely sharing information and putting the power in the hands of arbitrary governments, the decision increases the risk of a fragmented Internet.

This will cost Europeans more than just their right to free expression. European consumers will see an increasingly censored web, stripped of critical reviews or historical mistakes made by professionals such as accountants or home repair contractors.  And the ruling could invite politicians to suppress search results on their prior embarrassments from the eyes of European voters.

To protect our online freedom of expression and access to information, I strongly urge that the EU court’s errant ruling be quickly overturned and forever forgotten.

DelBianco is executive director of NetChoice, an advocacy organization for Internet users.

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