A lot of Europeans want to be forgotten

By Ted Rall , written on June 2, 2014

From The News Desk

 A landmark EU court ruling requiring that search engines delete libelous, incorrect, dated or simply "irrelevant" links to individuals on the Continent prompted an initial burst of applications to Google's new online form — which has grown, as word spread, to at least 12,000 requests so far.

The courts and Google are going to be sorting out the balance between Europeans' right to be forgotten and the world's right to know for years to come. As things currently stand, it will be easier for Joe Average than Dominique Strauss-Kahn to get his sexual history delinked.

It's easy to imagine why, for example, a grown-up tech CEO might not want to be haunted by the stupid shit he said and in did way back in college (four long years ago).

Thank God the Internet didn't exist when I was at my stupidest.

Among those 12,000 Memory Hole requests, reports The New York Times: "In France, a mother recently sought to remove photos of her scantily clad teenage daughter from a website. In Romania, a woman tried to curtail online access to records of her divorce. In Britain, a former politician wanted to delete Google links to a book he viewed as defamatory toward him." The British pol will be the least likely to succeed.

As I wrote two weeks ago, I agree with the decision. Those who prefer to ask people smeared by erroneous information to contact the individual websites where it appears ignore the reality that, in many cases, getting in touch with them impossible (assuming they're willing to comply). There are, for example, millions of dead webpages — no longer maintained or whose contact emails are now invalid. Many items are cross-posted. It's easier for Google to delete links, and to serve as a one-stop portal for deletion requests.

"Companies should not be tasked with balancing fundamental rights or making decisions on the appropriateness, lawfulness, or relevance of information they did not publish," Raegan MacDonald, European policy manager at Access, a digital rights organization, told Reuters. But Google does publish the links it's being asked to take down. And arguments that compliance is too hard are belied by the company's ability to deal with 23 million copyright-related complaints per month.

Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia calls the ruling "ridiculous" and "very bizarre," "pointing out that it could lead to a scenario where a newspaper can publish information but a search engine can’t link to it." The thing is, that's already true. Search engine results are ranked and manipulated by constantly-tweaked algorithms — which is why, for example, pieces by the Al Qaeda magazine Inspire are difficult to find on the U.S. version of Google.

Compliance will, however, be complicated.

Google is currently limiting requests for deletions to European citizens. But legal experts predict that the newly-established Right To Be Forgotten will expand to non-Europeans. "A person in Brazil, for example, could request that a link to an Internet posting be removed if the source was hosted on a server in Ireland. If such a request was successful, the suspect link would not appear on Google’s European sites but would be available everywhere else," Mark Scott writes in the Times.

Mission creep is another concern.

One place to watch is Ireland's Supreme Court, due to ratify or reject a 2013 ruling by Judge Michael Peart of Dublin, who ordered Google to remove a link posted by a Dublin taxi driver that misidentified Eoin McKeogh as the man who skipped out of his cab without paying the fare. McKeogh was in Japan at the time, yet he was pilloried online. Google complied, but the video could still be found. So the judge further ordered Google and other Internet companies to delete "tags, threads and other means by which the material remains accessible and viewable."

The EU's intentions — protecting privacy and allowing individuals to move past their past — are good. Whether the Internet is Inferno-bound remains, as always, to be seen.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for NSFWCORP/Pando]