The right to be forgotten – almost

Reporter Arne Petryshen editorializes on a legal decision that impacts Google

In the past, if you were a rich industrialist and an embarrassing story was going to be published about you, all that was necessary to stop it from coming out was to buy up all copies of the newspaper in the city.

Well, I imagine that would be the best way, anyway, as I’ve never met one an old-timey rich industrialist.

Nowadays things aren’t so easy, even for someone with horse trolleys overflowing with mesh sacks of gold coins. Not with the World Wide Web around.

The internet is like a running record of everything that occurs on it — good and bad — and search engines make that information easily accessible.

But the high courts of Europe, perhaps in a nod to the rich industrialist in us all, didn’t agree with those terms. So now a checkered history in the media, or an embarrassing photograph, no longer has to haunt your future endeavours.

That is, of course, if that embarrassing item pops up when your name is queried through a Google search, and provided you are a resident one of the 32 European countries included in the ruling.

In a recent decision by those high courts, it was ruled that in those countries Google must now accept requests under the aptly and somewhat ominously-named “right to be forgotten.”

That “right” extends to 28 countries in the European Union, as well as four non-EU countries — Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

So what is the right to be forgotten? While it may sound like something that belongs back in the Soviet Union (“Comrade, you have the right to be forgotten if you don’t accept your right to be silent”), it’s the ability to get those embarrassing video or news story eliminated from the view of the internet.

For instance, that time you made a video of yourself walking down the hallway, but then slipped and knocked over the fish tank … gone.

And that embarrassing news story where you said you could eat 10 delicious apple pies at the county pie eating contest, but then didn’t even make it to the fourth…that could also be eliminated under the European laws.

Europe’s highest court ruled that Google must accept requests to remove items people deem unflattering from the search engine’s results. The ruling is a landmark one, in terms of its implications for free speech, as it could be used, for instance, by the seedier members of society to clean up their image and remove items that would otherwise warn people of the danger they pose. And other potential implications along those lines.

The ruling is somewhat misguided as well, since while the court probably intended for a broader ruling on the internet it would seem to fall short. Google isn’t the internet, so it’s a bit like banning a book from a bookstore while it’s freely available at the library.

It’s also an issue, because like an elephant, the internet never forgets.

Even though those folks in Europe will no longer see that unflattering information come up in a Google search in their country, it doesn’t mean it isn’t still there. Google is now just filtering it out of the search. Connect outside those countries and they will be there again like a crack on your windshield that you can’t see from a certain angle. In this case, that angle is all of Europe.

And of course the information will still be there in its true on the original website it was posted. So in some respects all this does is makes some of the world’s information slightly harder to find, but not much more.

The old-time rich industrialist in us all would be disappointed.

Arne Petryshen is a reporter at the Cranbrook Daily Townsman