IMAGE: Milosh Kojadinovich — 123RF

The poisonous legacy of the so-called right to be forgotten

Google has appealed to the French Supreme Court against a fine imposed on it by the French data protection agency (CNIL) of €100,000 for not applying the so-called right to be forgotten in all of its domain names.

Regular readers will know my position on this issue: I have written about it on a number of occasions, but let me say it again. The right to be forgotten is an ill-begotten piece of legislation that is only going to create more and more problems over time. Behind the supposed wellbeing that we might feel at knowing that we can remove things about us from the search engine is a fallacy, and one that may well end up becoming a powerful tool of the censors, seriously damaging our right to information, which when it comes down to it is what Google or any other search engine is about.

Let’s be clear about this: forgetting is a physiological process that takes place when our brain cells stop working, not when somebody tells us to. If there really were such a thing as the right to be forgotten, then there would also exist the right to make somebody forget something, and we know where that leads us. At the same time, the idea that something is forgotten just because it can’t be found on a search engine is idiocy: just because something has been hidden, doesn’t been that it doesn’t exist. That’s a game we play with babies.

Forcing a search engine to hide results that somebody might not like is just plain wrong. Take me as an example. I am relatively well known, even though I’m just a humble teacher, so I don’t have this right, but the rest of society does. Have I done anything wrong? No, I just appear on the television every now and then. Great! In case it needs explaining, the incoherence here is that a court has tried to convert into a supposed right something that can never be a right, and is thus artificial, or to put it another way, S.T.U.P.I.D.

And to make matters worse, to protect this supposed right, we’re now going to force a search engine to eliminate results in every single country on the planet. What next, you might ask? Shall we get rid of every reference to Kemal Ataturk in case we offend the Turks? Or perhaps all images of the prophet Mohammed, or the Thai royal family… You can see where this is going: we’ll end up with search engines that only include results that are beyond any kind of controversy just in case somebody might need to exercise their right to be forgotten.

This is a slippery slope and represents a grave threat to our freedom of information. After all, if I go into a library I can look through the newspapers and discover that the man behind this whole thing, a certain Mr Costeja who lives in Barcelona and who a few years ago got into debt and had his home repossessed. But I can’t find that out on the internet because Mr Costeja has invoked his right to be forgotten. In other words, what exists in the physical world can’t exist online. What kind of legal idiocy is that?

Technology obliges us to question things. In the United States, the idea that a company can be forced not to provide information that exists in the public domain is just plain wrong, prompting people to wonder what on earth is going on in Europe. Yes, that’s right: it’s published in a newspaper, but you can’t see it on a search engine, which after all is supposed to search for things. Instead, on this side of the Atlantic, we prefer to cripple a search engine by telling it what it can and cannot find.

Privacy is a good thing, and we all have a right to it. But that doesn’t mean that we can pretend that things that happened to us, or things that we did somehow don’t exist. Respecting privacy means not publishing lies about people or organizations, not creating systems to cover up the truth. And what’s more, the so-called right to be forgotten is just going to create more and more problems.

The right to be forgotten was a bad idea and the European Tribunal of Justice got it wrong. And the fact that it was such an important court only makes the matter worse, magnifying its terrible MISTAKE. And now, over time, the consequences of that mistake will spread, creating absurd situations and going against all common sense. The question now is how on earth are we going to rectify this…

(En español, aquí)

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