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By Global Public Square staff
Do you have something in your past that you would rather forget? A youthful indiscretion that led to a run-in with the police perhaps? A debt that you "forgot" to pay maybe? How about a quickie marriage one night in Vegas that ended in a quickie divorce? In the Internet Age, these are the types of things that can now live forever.
Except perhaps, if you live in the European Union. Let me explain.
Last week, the European Union's highest court decided that parts of your past have a "right to be forgotten" on the Internet. It’s a ruling that effectively censors search engines like Google. Here's how it happened:
A Spanish man filed a complaint against Google because searches of his name turned up links to a 1998 newspaper notice that mentioned some debts. He argued that this old, now irrelevant information infringed on both his dignity and his privacy. And, on Tuesday, the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice agreed. Google has to stop linking to the Spaniard's property notice, the court said.
Under the "right to be forgotten" principle, if you live in one of the EU's 28 member states you will soon be able to remove links to your past. When you make a deletion request to the search engines and other content controllers, you have to meet the bar that the court set – that the information is "inadequate" "irrelevant" or "outdated." Rules are different if you are a public figure or if the information is in the public interest.
The landmark announcement has pleased privacy activists, but it has left critics feeling that it's a violation of free speech. As for Google, it found the ruling "disappointing" and is analyzing its implications.
This could be very expensive for Internet companies. For now, it mostly affects just Google – the search engine accounts for 90 percent of web searches in the EU. How it will all work in practice still needs to be ironed out. The Wall Street Journal reports that Google has since received requests from a politician wanting to remove articles about his behavior in office and from a doctor seeking to delete online reviews.
Another aspect of this to consider: we have Edward Snowden to thank for this and similar rulings. The EU is currently overhauling its data protection laws...inspired partly by Snowden's revelations of America's extensive electronic spying program.
The real problem here is this: the culling of information likely cannot all be done by humans. It might have to be executed by computers. Remember Google executes nearly 12 billion searches a month! And can an algorithm really find the delicate balance between personal privacy and the public interest, between what's inconvenient and what's inaccurate?
I would think not.
Now, European courts have historically favored privacy rights, while Americans tend to hold the First Amendment as sacrosanct and American companies advocate for self-regulation generally. But Americans are concerned too – 86 percent of Americans have taken measures to mask their digital footprints, according to the Pew Research Center.
So we will have to come up with some rules of the road to make people feel secure about their privacy. But let's make sure that we don't undermine and erode the things that have made the Internet such an amazing, transforming feature of modern life – its universality and its openness.