I’m a fan of the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog, a group that generally lives up to that name, but its recent effort to push Google into an Orwellian form of censorship, the so-called “right to be forgotten,” is a massive mistake.
In a letter to the FTC, John Simpson, the organization’s privacy project director, said Google’s refusal to remove search results at Americans’ request is hypocritical. “Without a doubt requesting the removal of a search engine link from one’s name to irrelevant data under the Right To Be Forgotten (or Right to Relevancy) is an important privacy option,” Simpson wrote. “Describing yourself as championing users’ privacy while not offering a key privacy tool — indeed one offered all across Europe — is deceptive behavior.”
The European Court of Justice issued a landmark ruling last May, and it stated that in certain circumstances Google (and other search companies) must remove links to consumers’ personal information if the details are “inaccurate, inadequate or no longer relevant.” The ruling birthed the concept of the right to be forgotten.
I wrote about this last February, and I’m not going to rehash the exact same arguments, but removing search links is no different than hiding library books because they offend someone or contain information they want to suppress.
It is telling that Russia, a country in which freedom of the press is not a civil right, is now pushing a right-to-be-forgotten law that will take effect next year, if signed by President Putin — a man who’s been quick to erase his own misdeeds from the public record. (Read Masha Gessen’s excellent novel, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, for details.)
The BBC published a list of pages that were removed from Google’s search results because of right-to-be-forgotten requests. The items in that list include news items about a woman who was found guilty of spiking drinks with rohypnol, a dispute about a lost dog and a page where male BBC readers discussed their anatomy using their real names. (Hat tip to Wired UK for finding these gems buried in a BBC blog.)
In addition to its strong stand on censorship in the United States, Google recently said it will remove links to so-called “revenge porn,” or intimate photos posted without permission, usually by former lovers.
Google hasn’t commented on the most recent right-to-be-forgotten developments, but I applaud its opposition so far. And to the BBC, I say “jolly good show, chaps.”