Sean Gladwell/Shutterstock
Sean Gladwell/Shutterstock

When the European Court of Justice—the rough equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court—ruled that individuals have the “right to be forgotten,” it took a dangerous step backward. Among many potential negative consequences, it could contribute to slowing global economic growth.
The court endorsed a profoundly ahistorical, anti-technological argument about the supposed rights of individuals. The plaintiff, Mario Costeja Gonzalez, is a Spanish citizen who was joined by a Spanish government agency in arguing that Google ought not link to a 1998 newspaper mention of a real estate auction that showed that he owed the government money back then. He argued it was no longer relevant because the legal matter had been resolved. Ironically, the Barcelona newspaper involved, LaVanguardia, was not ordered to remove the article. The information itself remains legal and publishable. Google, however, was ordered to delete links to it.
There is a genuine concern on the part of many that their personal lives have become over-exposed in the era of the Internet. But there are many ways to tackle that problem, quite a few of them under the control of the individual. The court in this instance put tremendous importance on the individual’s right to privacy, but in so doing disregarded what I consider another extremely important right—the right to information.
The Internet has leveled the playing field for individuals and institutions. One of the great things about Google is that someone sitting before it and inputting a query has an equal ability to learn information—whether they are a head of state, a police officer, or just a curious teenager. Ordinary people gain a more transparent view into the workings of society and to hitherto hidden or masked information. That has upended corrupt, unfair, and expensive systems across society. It’s a wonderful, albeit disruptive reality of the age we live in. On balance, the consequences have been hugely beneficial.
Thus far. The court now says that anyone in Europe can argue that certain information about them is “irrelevant.” But it did not clearly define how to determine information’s relevance or importance. The amount of frightening gray area is huge. A politician with a history of anti-Semitism who argued that they had reformed? A person who was long ago married and divorced and who now wants to remarry? What if you recklessly killed someone in a car crash when you were 16? These may be extreme examples, but once you open the door to masking information, you risk hiding things that ought not be hidden. And how could such a system be applied uniformly and fairly?
The decision is Orwellian—it assumes that the past should be available for rewriting. There is no truth, according to the ruling, only what people argue is “acceptable” or “relevant.” These to me are frightening concepts with no standardized definition. More easy to define is a general rule that information ought to be available to citizens, in order to insure social fairness, honesty, freedom and democracy.
The ruling thus fundamentally shifts power from the individual to governments and larger entities with more resources. Individuals are ostensibly protected by the ruling, but it is access to information by individuals that the decision impairs. More powerful entities will surely find their way around such restrictions. Does anyone think the NSA will not be able to learn about some puny article?
The ruling also presumes, wrongly, that technology is static. What about the likelihood that more powerful computers and ever-sleeker algorithms could become widely available? The kinds of spidering software and searching tools that Google, Bing, Yandex, Baidu and others currently employ will almost certainly over time become available to smaller organizations and someday even ordinary people. At that point information might be routinely available to all of us, just not through the institutions of the web like Google that are subject to the ruling. By that logic the ruling may be unenforceable over the long term. That doesn’t mean it is not destructive in the short term.
The ruling further increases the risk of a globally balkanized and walled-off Internet–one in which information varies within each country depending on the whims of that country’s government. That is sad to contemplate. But it dovetails with a diverse set of recent developments—Putin’s seizing of the Vkontakte social network in Russia, Erdogen’s shutdowns of YouTube and Twitter in Turkey, restrictive content laws in Australia, and efforts in the ITU and elsewhere by governments including India, Iran, and many others to pull control of Internet governance institutions away from organizations dominated historically by the United States like ICANN.
The Internet is a major contributor to global growth and economic opportunity. The less global and open it becomes, the more that growth and opportunity become jeopardized.
One of the most frightening things about the moment in which we live is that the United States, the country most committed to freedom and openness, has crippled its own credibility as an advocate for these values. The Snowden revelations documented that our own government often does not act in accordance with our national commitment to privacy and liberty. That has enabled less-enlightened, often corrupt leaders worldwide to say this: “Since the world’s supposed guardian of freedom and openness doesn’t even believe in it, why should we believe in it here—in Russia, in Turkey, even in the European Union?”
This article was originally published on LinkedIn.