European court orders Google to erase history

Here’s another reminder of why it’s a really, really, really, really bad idea for the United States to surrender oversight of the Internet to some nebulous international body: Europe’s highest court just ordered Google – and, by extension, other search providers – to erase history for anyone who wants to exercise their “right to be forgotten.”

National Journal reports the ruling obliges Google to “allow its users to delete links about themselves that they find embarrassing, outdated, or unsavory”:

The court determined that European privacy laws grant a person the right to have certain links containing private information expunged from a search query, even when they are lawful. Because the search of a person’s name displays what can be considered a personal profile, that information should be subject to some personal privacy protections. Google and its brethren, therefore, hold some responsibility for the content they display.

Backers of the “right to be forgotten” quickly hailed the decision. Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for justice, trumpeted the decision on Facebook as “a clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans.”

The ruling, while surprising to some legal observers, follows years of bold attempts by the Europe Union and other countries, such as Argentina, to usher in more digital privacy protections, even as the Internet becomes a place where most people are willing to share ever-increasing amounts of personal data on the web.

National Journal quotes George Washington University law professor James Rosen explaining why this idea is not only unwieldy from a practical standpoint, but incompatible with the American understanding of free speech:

In theory, the right to be forgotten addresses an urgent problem in the digital age: it is very hard to escape your past on the Internet now that every photo, status update, and tweet lives forever in the cloud. But Europeans and Americans have diametrically opposed approaches to the problem. In Europe, the intellectual roots of the right to be forgotten can be found in French law, which recognizes le droit à l’oubli–or the “right of oblivion”–a right that allows a convicted criminal who has served his time and been rehabilitated to object to the publication of the facts of his conviction and incarceration. In America, by contrast, publication of someone’s criminal history is protected by the First Amendment, leading Wikipedia to resist the efforts by two Germans convicted of murdering a famous actor to remove their criminal history from the actor’s Wikipedia page.

Certainly privacy rights are a serious concern, but this idea of selectively compelling search engines to delete links to everything about you – which strikes me as a labor-intensive task that would impose huge cost burdens on search providers, along with significant legal jeopardy if they miss anything “embarrassing, outdated, or unsavory” – should be understood as a form of censorship.  It would be easy to see it that way, if we weren’t talking about electronic data – wouldn’t the “analog” version of this principle involve rounding up and burning journals, directories, and newspapers?

Here’s a little more detail about the European case, from the UK Metro:

The ruling, which was given by the European courts and cannot be appealed, follows a complaint brought by Spaniard Mario Costeja Gonzalez.

He was upset when a Google search for his name brought up a link to a 1998 story about unpaid debts that he says have long since been settled.

The court ruled individuals should be able to request irrelevant or incorrect personal information be taken down from search engine results.

It rejected Google’s argument that it only provided links and was not responsible for what web users found when they clicked on them.

Google called it ‘a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general’.

Take this idea far enough, and the chilling effect on Internet services could virtually wipe out the Net as we know it.  Who wants to take the risk of getting hauled into court because you’re held responsible for everything you link to – including stories that were accurate at the time they were written, preserved forever in Internet amber?