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Google, the fight to forget, and the right to remember

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A major assault on the past is underway in Europe where tens of thousands are seizing on a landmark court ruling to demand Google(s goog) remove search results they dislike. As a result, people on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and even within Europe, could soon see very different versions of the internet as Google’s listings become riddled with blank spaces where information once stood.

This is dangerous. Europe’s past is replete with governments that scrubbed history to suit their own ends. The new Google rules could not only provide a new way for the powerful to purge the past, but also help legitimize censorship in other countries.

This doesn’t mean that there is no place for forgetting or deleting data – indeed, history also shows that forgetting can be as important to a society as remembering. But the removal rules, as they are now constructed, threaten to do more harm than good.

Power, governments and Google

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against oblivion,” wrote Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

Kundera’s 1978 book, which recounts the sad story of communism in Czechoslovakia, describes people who vanish from official photographs and a puppet leader who rules as the “president of forgetting.”

For Czech citizens, the trauma of forced forgetting is not just political but personal as well:

“Official forgetting is echoed by the personal struggles of the subjects of so revisable a government to recover lost letters, to remember details that give life emotional continuity,” wrote John Updike in a contemporary review of the work.

These days, eastern Europe is no longer under communist control, of course, but one can easily imagine how such governments would have reacted to Google; they would have scrubbed or rearranged search results at will. Indeed, stifling search engines is standard policy in present-day dictatorships like Iran and China — witness how China is blacking out Google to mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. (Many Chinese won’t know this since Google can’t tell them).

Fortunately, the new European court ruling isn’t as heavy handed as that. What the European court did instead is to allow its citizens to force Google to remove “outdated, wrong or irrelevant” information. (The rules apply to other search engines too but, with 90 percent of the European market, Google is what matters here.)

Google, in response to the court order, has created a form that permits Europeans who present a photo ID to ask for search results to be removed. Tens of thousands of people are already filling them out, including celebrities, cyber-stalkers and a convicted pedophile.

Not all of these requests will be granted. The rules, as described by the European Court of Justice, call for individuals’ requests for privacy to be balanced against “the interest of the public in having that information.”

What Europe is thus imposing is a more benign form of forgetting, one that seeks to protect privacy without erasing history. The question, however, is how quickly this will become a slippery slope to Kundera-style oblivion.

The need to forget

Despite the famous slogan “Never Forget,” which echoes from events like 9/11 and the Holocaust, forgetting is not always a bad thing. In fact, it can be healthy, even necessary.

As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in a nuanced essay on the Europe court’s Google ruling, “strategic forgetting … lies at the heart of every modern nation.” To forget is to let old hatreds die down, and to abandon ethnic identities that fostered war or genocide.

And while the literature of Kundera point out the perils of forgetting, other magical realists like Jorge Borges and Jose Saramago offer different lessons on the subject, with stories that show how memory cannot or should not be permanent.

The idea that forgetting is okay, even desirable also punctuates our everyday idioms: “forgive and forget” and “let bygones be bygones.” So why shouldn’t European authorities command the same from Google?

In the recent court case, which turned on a Spanish man’s 1998 bankruptcy, that is what the judges did. They said, in effect, that a long-ago financial event should not be a calling card atop Google results for the rest of the man’s life.

It’s easy to see how others with a mistake in their past might wish the same thing. The alternative is to be dogged by Google, with those earlier indiscretions bubbling up forever before every potential date or employer.

That is why some in the U.S., where the First Amendment protects Google’s search results, turn to shadowy reputation management firms to escape the past. One of the firms’ common black-op tricks, for those who can afford to pay, is to churn out a barrage of false or irrelevant webpages that push the incriminating search result out of site.

In this context, an official forgetting law might be fine, even preferable. Unfortunately, the way Europe plans to go about it is not.

book burning 2

Selecting the shepherds of history

In 2008, media outlets published a video of Max Mosley, a F1 racing executive and the son of British Nazis, in a sex romp with German-speaking prostitutes dressed as camp guards. Since then, Mosley has mounted a vigorous legal campaign to punish the media, and to force Google to remove search results in France and Germany.

As a result of the new European court ruling, ordinary people may be able to purge embarrassing personal information in the same way. The question is who will do this and how.

Google has so far suggested it will not simply agree to remove all requests, but will assess them on a case-by-case basis. This will be a costly process, leading some to fret that Google will eventually decide to implement an automated system to take down all the requests.

For now, though, Germany — where many of the early takedown requests are taking place — is proposing a new type of cyber-court to resolve the conflicts that pit personal privacy against the public interest.

Google, for its part, said it is convening a committee of wise men, including CEO Larry Page and its top lawyer, David Drummond, to assess the issue. The advisory group also reportedly includes academics, the head of Wikipedia and a United Nations official.

The result, then, is that squads of bureaucrats and Google’s assembly of experts are now poised to devise a system to determine which portions of Europe’s past will be indexed as search results and which will not. (Some suggest that a record of the search links that disappear may turn up the website Chilling Effects).

Even if this small clutch of bureaucrats and wise men come up with a workable system, however, it remains to be seen who it will serve. Typically, it is those like Mosley, who possess money and influence, who are best able to avail themselves of legal tools like the one the European court has introduced.

This means that, short of suspending the process altogether, European authorities should set the bar as high as possible for the removal of search results. Otherwise, the continent’s hard-won right to remember its past could slip away once more.


9 Responses to “Google, the fight to forget, and the right to remember”

  1. Andy Anon

    It’s a totally naive, immense perversion of the ‘free speech’ ideal that peoples personal lives are allowed to become infotainment for the masses. Ancient public records laws that haven’t been updated for the information age are used to compel things that ultimately destroy peoples lives, their employability prospects, their reputations.

    This is without getting into the even uglier waters of outright libel. Show me someone who supports ‘unlimited free speech’ on the internet, I’ll show you someone with an opinion I could change in 10 seconds after posting a few select things about them on a hit site.

    This is a gray area. For example, in the US, whether a court determines someone to be a ‘public figure’ or not plays a central role in what may or may not be considered libel. In these right to forget cases, politicians and celebrities may be on the hook for whatever as a consequence of their own life choices, however someone who just wants to work as a waitress who has a nude pic put up by an ex boyfriend? Or someone who is being extorted by a website demanding hundreds of dollars to remove an old mugshot?

    I’m sick and tired of mindlessly chanting ideals as a response to very practical, very real world consequences. YA SHOULDA THOUGHT ABOUT THAT BEFORE YA DONE WENT AND GOT ARRESTED FREE SPEECH FREE SPEECH USA! USA! USA!

    It gets old after a while.

  2. Andre

    It is a highly misleading stance to compare the “right to be forgotten” (your right to a deletion of your personal data collected by others) with a revision of history.

  3. Max Mosely

    Just because Google can not index search results does not mean the information does not exist. It can easily be found, just not through Google in the relative comfort of your favorite chair.

    • WalleyedWillie

      That’s a good point. However, if this goes deeper, and an article in an online newspaper is removed, and the search engines no longer surface it, then something is lost permanently. That’s the real danger, isn’t it?

  4. Remi Dufour

    I think it would be more interesting if you could comment on how changing one’s personal history could have repercussions on national history. Sociological models can be used to show how rather tolerant personal preferences can lead in the aggregate to very segregated societies. I think we should build models adapted to that case to help us better understand the consequences of that ruling on a macro level. I think this should be a more productive path, perhaps one that Google should explore – I’d be more than happy to help. It’s much more fun to learn about the consequences of such ruling by building models than by making statements such as “it’s a bad thing” or “it’s a good thing” and having recourse to anecdotes to support the arguments. That approach is 20th century. We can do much better now, and I hope that Google can see that.

  5. Deepak Periwal

    Once this ball is set to roll, its only going to snowball. The authorities will find it excruciatingly difficult to ease this leash. There are millions who want history untouched, in its purest form. History is the only aspect of human knowledge that could not be hampered by pandering bureaucracy, lobbying and money power. With this ruling, the force of history might become history. Our future generations will be deprived of freewill and free judgment by showing them only what people what them to see. I am the founder of 31West and feel deeply disturbed by this. The need of the hour is a crowdfunded project with its primary focus being preservation of our past and relics.

    • Burbuja Osorio

      I’m impressed by the profound naiveté of this statement: “History is the only aspect of human knowledge that could not be hampered by pandering bureaucracy, lobbying and money power”

      Believing in the purity of history it’s an oxymoron to me