The 'right to be forgotten' carries digital dilemmas
Oct 9, 2014
"The 'Right to be Forgotten' Raises Digital Dilemmas: Balancing Privacy and Freedom of Expression"
Google announced a series of lectures in several countries to discuss the ethical and legal validity of the European Supreme Court's decision about the "Right to be Forgotten". This decision determines that the company has the obligation to remove from its search results the links to articles that are "inadequate, irrelevant or have ceased to be relevant" when members of the public so wish. According to the decision, a politician accused of corruption can ask Google not to show articles addressing the accusation. The sentence aims to respect the right to privacy, but it sets a dangerous precedent: how to decide what the public needs to know? The fundamental dilemma of the digital age lies in the balance between privacy and freedom of expression. If the balance tilts to one side, society is doomed to pay for it.
Activists in favor of privacy defend the Court's decision because they claim that people who have made a mistake or have lived through delicate situations are eternally condemned because their names are linked to their mistakes forever, thanks to Google. For example, a businessman who has gone bankrupt will carry this stigma forever and will have his ability to do business tarnished forever (the sentence was given in a case exactly in these conditions, with a Spanish businessman suing Google), regardless of whether he has settled with Justice or not. Everyone's sins are forever etched in stone.
The problem is that the decision about the relevance of the subject is almost always a personal evaluation. A BBC analyst wrote a text questioning the decision where the problem becomes very clear. In 2007, Robert Peston wrote a post about a Merrill Lynch mega-fund executive, Stan O'Neal, and his role in the fund's stance on the economic meltdown that devastated the economy of several countries. O'Neal's lawyers managed to get Google to remove the search results that led to Peston's post about O'Neal, claiming they were no longer relevant. Wait a minute: an executive plays a crucial role in one of the biggest crises in economic history and seven years later an article about the case is no longer relevant? History is full of forgetfulness and alterations made by those who kept the books. The winner has always written history because he could.
In Peston's case, O'Neal's intervention is clearly contrary to the right to freedom of expression which is in the magna carta of the foundation of the European Union itself (and whose American equivalent is embodied in the famous First Amendment to the Constitution). The decision about what is or is not relevant is strictly linked to the defense of the parties' interests. Keeping easily accessible documents that show that a businessman or a politician had inappropriate conduct is a guarantee to the circulation of information, vital for the functioning of a democracy. On the other hand, a video of a teenager smoking marijuana or getting drunk at a college party cannot be the obstacle for a politician or businessman who lived their irresponsibilities during that period of life. The clash between privacy and freedom of expression is irreconcilable and, in developed societies, guarantees a balance between the two parties precisely by maintaining this tension. The legal history of the United Kingdom is lined with legal debates on the subject and the jurisprudence left by these cases make both one and the other highly valued by society and the law.
Global decisions like those of the Supreme Court tend to have a harmful effect on this balance. There is no instance beyond Justice to decide individually what the best solution is. This is a measure that makes the whole process very bureaucratic, if not unfeasible. Just like democracy - it is the worst option of all, but there is no other acceptable alternative. There is a war underway to "tame" the universal nature of the Internet and legally governments and corporations are in a systematic movement for this. Google is not the savior hero and is not speaking out against the European decision only because it believes in the ethical principles of the thing - the sentence also has a high financial cost. In any case, even though problematic, the maintenance of the privacy x freedom of expression tension is the only acceptable path.