Forgotten: The original picture shows, left to right Nikolai Antipov, Joseph Stalin, Sergei Kirov, and Nikolai Shvernik.
The pastiche shows how each of Stalin’s comrades was removed from the original shot as he fell out of favor.
The European Union thinks so. On May 13, its highest court ruled that there is indeed a “right to be forgotten,” with which Google (which provides 90% of the search service for Europe) must comply. The new standard is: “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed.” So far, Google has received 70,000 requests to remove search links, covering 250,000 pages. The pages themselves are not affected by the ruling.
While Europeans may see this as a victory for the underdog, North Americans think differently. Apart from the difficulties with enforcement, there is the obvious problem encapsulated in the response of Stewart Baker, formerly of U.S. Homeland Security. “We’ll be the big losers. The big winners will be French ministers who want the right to have their last mistress forgotten.”
Which is, come to think of it, a two-edged sword. What if the mistress does not want what happened to her forgotten? It means that, in a world going online, she becomes an unperson and her story an unstory, like those of three of the men in the photo above. So it’s not so clear that the ruling will really turn out to be a victory for the underdog. More likely a victory for those with power to manage the news.
In any event, because the ruling applies only within Europe, Europeans and North Americans will see different search results. Residents of other regions will probably need to figure out which they want to see. Another concern raised is that Google may choose to avoid litigation by just removing links when asked to do so. This can include removing links to media articles, which has already happened. Where scandals might damage careers, there is likely to be political or financial pressure to do just that.
Some see this as a “fundamental divide” between European sensibilities and North American ones. Maybe. It’s hard to believe that many powerful Americans would not also want to control what the Internet tells us about them. Perhaps it is not so much a matter of sensibilities as of fundamental law. The First Amendment to the United States’ Constitution states
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Note how much more powerful and explicit “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech” is, in terms of its implications, than the vague talk about individuals’ rights that we typically find in Constitutions.
Nico Sell, who offers an encrypted messaging service called Wickr, suggests that ultimately the solution is to let individuals control their own online presence:
“The right to be forgotten is a great idea philosophically, but it is wrong to put the onus on Google or Facebook,” she said. “They have no idea where all your data is, and this is not their job. We need to give consumers tools with the ability to add expiration dates to their personal data.”
So far, Google’s response, as represented by chief legal officer David Drummond, has been muted. Drummond points out that the EU’s tests are “vague and subjective”:
The examples we’ve seen so far highlight the difficult value judgments search engines and European society now face: former politicians wanting posts removed that criticize their policies in office; serious, violent criminals asking for articles about their crimes to be deleted; bad reviews for professionals like architects and teachers; comments that people have written themselves (and now regret). In each case, someone wants the information hidden, while others might argue it should be out in the open.
What it most likely means, in the end, is that in Europe, the status quo will be restored. Some, especially the government, have information but others don’t and can’t.
Incidentally, there really is no “right” to be forgotten any more than there is a “right” to be remembered. Forgetting and remembering are in the hands of other human beings.
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.