One of the best films of my lifetime is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film centers on a tumultuous relationship between the eccentric Clementine and the unassuming Joel. After yet another fight, Clementine takes the ultimate step to break the whole relationship off: she undergoes a medical procedure to erase Joel from her memory. And you thought deleting your ex on Facebook was harsh.
The film came out in 2004, an ancient era in which civilization was forced to survive with a lack of “smart” technologies. The concept of a wristwatch that could play my favorite
Miley Cyrus Arcade Fire songs and simultaneously monitor my heart rate was not on my radar. But when I saw Eternal Sunshine back in 2004, the memory erasure technology presented in the film didn’t seem that farfetched to me. I predicted a service like Lacuna Inc. would be operational.
In 2014, technology is not yet equipped to successfully excavate memories from the human brain. If anything, the opposite is the case. Humans can erase memories from technology. We still have a smidgen of power over machines. I’m talking about the right to be forgotten.
What is the Right to Be Forgotten?
Needless to say, the internet has an insanely good memory. Remember that time Russian President Boris Yeltsin got so drunk that he wandered the streets of Washington DC in his underwear looking for pizza? You may not, but the internet sure does. Off-topic question: what is it with Russian Presidents not wanting to wear a shirt?
If Yeltsin was alive and embarrassed by this--considering his proclivity for inebriation, I doubt it--he would potentially request that The Telegraph remove that article from their website. If The Telegraph possessed any journalistic integrity, they wouldn’t. Yeltsin’s not a quitter though: this is the dude that literally set fire to his own parliament. In a land of right to be forgotten, Yeltsin would appeal to Google and ask them to never return that page for any search.
I suppose you could say the right to be forgotten is the right to perform reputation management. It’s the right to throw an invisible cloak over content that does not cast you in the best light.
Google Spain SL, Google Inc. v Agencia Española de Protección de Datos, Mario Costeja González
The right to be forgotten is a European principle that has been coined over the past few years. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase far more often in the last twelve months though. This is because of a court case decided in May 2014 by the European Union Court of Justice, a case so controversial it makes Bush v. Gore look like an episode of Judge Judy.
In 2010, a man named Mario Costeja Gonzalez made a request to Google Spain that an article about him be banned from appearing in search results. A search for his name pointed to a 1998 article about the forced auctioning of two of his properties due to his mounting social security debts. In the decade since then, he managed to build a better life for himself, and he felt it was unfair that this was one of the first things anyone could learn about him after a simple web search.
The Spanish newspaper in question, La Vanguardia, refused Gonzalez, as did Google Spain. Gonzalez wasn’t moved to quit, and he decided to file a complaint with the Spanish data protection agency, A.E.P.D. (Agencia Española de Protección de Datos). The A.E.P.D. met Gonzalez in the middle. They said La Vanguardia did not have to remove the articles, but that Google Spain would have to remove the article’s visibility in search.
Google Spain refused, and their dispute with the A.E.P.D. culminated in the now famous court battle. Arguments were made in June 2013, but the court didn’t issue its ruling until eleven months later. The court ruled against Google Spain.
I’m not a legal expert, even though I played a judge in a theater camp production of “The Crucible.” It appears to me that the court is saying that Google has a responsibility as a “data controller” to protect the rights of Gonzalez given to him by articles seven and eight in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Article seven provides for the respect of an individual’s private and family life, eight provides for the protection of personal data.
Essentially, the court is ruling that Gonzalez has the right to request that Google “forgets” or erases personal information about him from their search results.
Because Google is a data controller--the most powerful one in the world at that--they have a obligation to private citizens that are the subjects of all the data. With great power comes great responsibility, right?
My favorite part of this entire case is how Google tried to defend themselves by saying that Google Spain is its own entity. That's like saying that Diet Coke is separate from Coke.
Even Google isn’t above a continental judicial system. They were forced to comply with The Court of Justice, and they set up a mechanism so now anyone could file a request to have certain morsels of online information expelled. This was not done in America, only in the European models of their search engine.
This is the form that users are asked to fill out when they are looking to remove certain links. It’s not terribly complex: state your name, attach a photo and list the links you object to. The form has been live for roughly two months. It’s been used over 70,000 times. There are Justin Bieber fan pages that can’t even get that kind of traffic.
About a week ago, Bing offered up their own removal request form. Again, it is available only in Europe.
To be clear, the unflattering content will remain live. This ruling does not affirm a plaintiff’s right to ask a publisher to wholly remove the content in question: in fact, the publisher doesn’t have to do a thing.
The burden is on the search engines. The content will remain live as long as the publisher chooses to keep it on her/his site. It will be up to sites like Google to tweak their algorithm so that certain pages are forbidden from appearing for any search query. Even if you searched for the exact title of the article, the author name and the subject of the article, it won’t rank in the search results.
I have no idea how much of an inconvenience that will be for search engines, but I can’t imagine that will be easy.
Google has a sophisticated algorithm, one that places a great emphasis on links. When a various amount of authority websites link to another website, that latter website will gain enough link equity to the point that it is likely to rank highly as well. There are other ranking factors of course, but links are among the most important.
The page Gonzalez wanted to remove had 469 backlinks. For a search on a private citizen’s name, it’s easy to comprehend how this would rank so highly. How will Google adjust for the right to be forgotten as more and more requests flood in? Where's the line? How do they determine what is a realistic removal and simply censorship?
The Complexity of it All
I’m torn here.
I think a person, particularly a private citizen, should be allowed to have a certain amount of control over her/his reputation. I make the public/private distinction because I believe I have a right to access information about people who are looking to represent me in a governing body. Bing agrees, if you look at part two of their form.
There’s no one who doesn’t have portions of embarrassing information when their lives are put under a microscope. I know I have stuff on the internet that I’m not proud of, and I don’t just mean my still active myspace page either. I have a picture that went viral on theCHIVE once, and no I don’t care to elaborate.
Stephen Hawking is one of the greatest thinkers of the last 100 years, a man whose reputation as such precedes him. You don’t have to do that much digging to find that he, um, enjoys the nightlife, however.
So I sympathize with Mr. Gonzalez, I really do. That, however, is the internet for you, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
The internet is in many ways a level platform. I don’t make the kind of money to regularly buy up ad space on television in order to pillory big oil companies, nor are any cable news directors calling me to do an on-air interview. But if I actually mustered up the will to learn anything about coding, I could build a crawler like this.
Anyone can own and operate a blog too. Sure it costs money to buy a domain, but if I wanted to buy the domain jessestoler.com, it would only cost me $11.59 a year. I don’t have the data necessary to do the math, but I don’t hesitate in hypothesizing that starting my very own cable channel would lead to a bigger dent in my checking account.
The point of all this is that with the right to be forgotten movement making strides, we are slowly being nudged down a slippery slope. Even if there are supposed safeguards that prevent powerful public figures from erasing Google’s memory, I can’t trust the power won’t eventually be abused. And why is Google, a corporation with the primary goal of amassing profits, in control of the removal of sensitive information?
If you didn’t know already, Google has grown as a lobbying presence in Washington D.C. They are the second biggest spender in our nation’s capitol as of last year. Given the amount of business interests they are keen on developing over the next few decades, it’s in their interest to butter up legislators as much as possible, and much is possible in a post-Citizens United world. Who is to say with absolute certainty that Google won’t see it fit to remove derogatory information about Senators they are lobbying? I hate sounding like a conspiracy theorist in training, but I don’t fancy that as much of a stretch.
If a former Merrill Lynch CEO can have his well-documented and accurate misdoings removed, a legislator can.
It’s a war between whatever your beliefs are on the right of the individual to maintain his or her own reputation versus the right for the public at large to freely access information, and it’s a tough question for me.
One fact that mitigates answering that question is knowing that the searches aren’t wholly deemed invisible: we are too technologically advanced a society to allow for that. I don’t know what technical sorcery they employ, but Hidden From Google is tracking these censored links.
Ultimately, I’m choosing to quell my libertarian streak and play for the team of collective good. I’m a fierce supporter of net neutrality, and it would be a badge of hypocrisy to stand for potential censorship on the part of Google as opposed to Comcast. Even though I would like to be able to remove certain things about me--and One Direction while we’re at it--from the internet, to do so would be an affront to its democratic spirit.
If information is published about an individual and that information is intentionally false and intentionally harmful, then let current libel laws be applied. If it's not intentionally false and intentionally harmful, then I feel no one has the right to censor it. The only person who should have control over the content is the publisher.
I know this is more of a European issue at the moment, so forgive my American perspective. The framers of our Constitution were well-educated and thoughtful men. They weren't fortune tellers however. When they wrote the Second Amendment, they couldn't have predicted M16s. When they wrote the Third Amendment, they didn't have the foresight to know that British soldiers of the future really wouldn't need to crash on the couch of some guy in Maryland. And when they wrote the First Amendment, they didn't predict the internet.
The internet has made it so that everyone with a keyboard can be a member of the fourth estate now. Our voices have been amplified by orders of magnitude. We all have soap boxes thanks to the greatest communication tool that has ever been created. The amount of free speech that happens on a daily basis is unprecedented, but right to be forgotten is moving that speech into untested waters. The power to erase truthful content has been granted, and its been granted to a for-profit industry. The implications could be staggering.
I would love to hear your thoughts dear readers. Should users have the right to remove disparaging content from search?
P.S.: I apologize if you opened this under the assumption that I was writing about The Breakfast Club. Here's a treat for you if that was the case.