The Right to Remember

Earlier this year, Mario Costeja-González won the right to be forgotten.  The Court of Justice of the EU ruled Google had to remove search results linking to a 1998 newspaper article about the foreclosure of his home (due to unpaid debts he later paid).  In the ultimate irony, he’s now permanently and widely remembered for precisely what he wanted everyone to forget (the Streisand Effect).

Now, search engines must consider requests from individuals to remove search results that:

appear to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant or excessive in the light of the time that had elapsed 

This raises the key question:  who judges this?  Something “irrelevant” to one person might be highly relevant to another.  Not surprisingly, Google is making its point by notifying Web sites when results are removed.

This decision raises fundamental questions about the right to inform & freedoms of speech and press.  The newspaper’s freedom to publish the foreclosure news is clearly protected, I am free to link to the news, and this blog post will eventually show up in search results.  It seems arbitrary that some have freedoms and some don’t.

For better or worse, search technology has permanently changed the privacy calculus.  Since the dawn of time we’ve enjoyed “practical obscurity“, where a lot of personal information was hard to identify, locate, or access. That’s changed, and legislators will now chase the issue with law and rulings in a never-ending game of Whac-a-Mole. For example, how long until someone finds ways to detect links that were removed and publishes them?

(Given this new world, a far better strategy for Mr. Costeja-González would be to generate new content and bury the foreclosure news in the noise.)

The Internet never forgets; plan accordingly.