Europeans are about to learn a very hard lesson: political rights overlap. There is no way to exercise the right to be forgotten without taking away someone’s right to express and educate themselves.
In response to a Spanish court’s ruling that citizens can compel Google to remove offensive links about themselves, the search giant unveiled a form for submitting “right to be forgotten” requests.
With a valid European ID, any citizen can paste a URL and describe the reason they think Google is required by law to remove the link from their search results. It is yet to be determined how Google will go about deciding whether certain embarrassing information does meet the laws’ standard of being worthy of the public interest.
Either way, Google promises to notify users at the bottom of each search result page about the links that were removed.
In the past, search engines have applied similarly unwieldy laws by simply returning no results at all for citizens who make any request.
I predict this law will eventually tear itself apart in a splendor of glorious contradiction. Already, the seediest elements of European society are lining up to erase themselves from the Internet. According to statistics provided by Google, 12 percent of removal requests are related to child pornography, 20percent for violent crime, and 31 percent for fraud/scams. One doctor who suffered negative reviews also wants it removed from Google.
This will lead to two big issues:
1. Harm from expression
Google removes links; it doesn’t remove the person’s name from an article. One politician has already submitted a request to remove embarrassing information. Unfortunately, most websites probably have multiple people espousing some belief.
The original Spanish case involved a Spanish newspaper publishing lawyer Mario Costejo’s social security debts. Now, the right to be forgotten includes removing links to newspaper articles. Search engines drive a lot traffic, especially to archived content.
As a journalist, my business depends on advertising, which is priced based on circulation (a.k.a. traffic). Not only is the law eradicating my freedom of the press by removing a link. It’s also inhibiting my ability to sustain my business. In order to comply to the increasing frequency of requests, Google may simply have to cut off entire sections of the Internet.
To the extent that Google impacts people’s livelihoods and ability to express themselves, the right to be forgotten will increasingly diminish those complimentary rights.
2. Harm from ignorance
Information protects people. It protects parents who screen babysitters for pedophilia charges, patients who prefer effective doctors, and consumers who want reliable goods. Eventually, someone’s going to get scammed, hurt, or neglected by someone they trust. When it’s discovered that they didn’t know because their prior searches didn’t reveal anything suspicious, there will be a countersuit.
The only way Google can possibly comply with the flood of requests is to start approving almost everything. Many of the worst businesses and companies will simply disappear from the Web. When harm occurs, it will go to the courts — and Europe will have to decide between privacy and real harm. And, when that happens, it’s going to be a very ugly fight.
Dear Google, just start censoring the Web
Here’s some fun advice for Google: Let Europe censor itself into oblivion. Comply with nearly every request in the most brute force fashion. Cut off whole sections of the Internet and watch the counter-revolt. This law will tear itself apart.