Google, the fight to forget, and the right to remember

A major assault on the past is underway in Europe where tens of thousands are seizing on a landmark court ruling to demand Google(s goog) remove search results they dislike. As a result, people on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and even within Europe, could soon see very different versions of the internet as Google’s listings become riddled with blank spaces where information once stood.

This is dangerous. Europe’s past is replete with governments that scrubbed history to suit their own ends. The new Google rules could not only provide a new way for the powerful to purge the past, but also help legitimize censorship in other countries.

This doesn’t mean that there is no place for forgetting or deleting data – indeed, history also shows that forgetting can be as important to a society as remembering. But the removal rules, as they are now constructed, threaten to do more harm than good.

Power, governments and Google

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against oblivion,” wrote Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

Kundera’s 1978 book, which recounts the sad story of communism in Czechoslovakia, describes people who vanish from official photographs and a puppet leader who rules as the “president of forgetting.”

For Czech citizens, the trauma of forced forgetting is not just political but personal as well:

“Official forgetting is echoed by the personal struggles of the subjects of so revisable a government to recover lost letters, to remember details that give life emotional continuity,” wrote John Updike in a contemporary review of the work.

These days, eastern Europe is no longer under communist control, of course, but one can easily imagine how such governments would have reacted to Google; they would have scrubbed or rearranged search results at will. Indeed, stifling search engines is standard policy in present-day dictatorships like Iran and China — witness how China is blacking out Google to mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. (Many Chinese won’t know this since Google can’t tell them).

Fortunately, the new European court ruling isn’t as heavy handed as that. What the European court did instead is to allow its citizens to force Google to remove “outdated, wrong or irrelevant” information. (The rules apply to other search engines too but, with 90 percent of the European market, Google is what matters here.)

Google, in response to the court order, has created a form that permits Europeans who present a photo ID to ask for search results to be removed. Tens of thousands of people are already filling them out, including celebrities, cyber-stalkers and a convicted pedophile.

Not all of these requests will be granted. The rules, as described by the European Court of Justice, call for individuals’ requests for privacy to be balanced against “the interest of the public in having that information.”

What Europe is thus imposing is a more benign form of forgetting, one that seeks to protect privacy without erasing history. The question, however, is how quickly this will become a slippery slope to Kundera-style oblivion.

The need to forget

Despite the famous slogan “Never Forget,” which echoes from events like 9/11 and the Holocaust, forgetting is not always a bad thing. In fact, it can be healthy, even necessary.

As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in a nuanced essay on the Europe court’s Google ruling, “strategic forgetting … lies at the heart of every modern nation.” To forget is to let old hatreds die down, and to abandon ethnic identities that fostered war or genocide.

And while the literature of Kundera point out the perils of forgetting, other magical realists like Jorge Borges and Jose Saramago offer different lessons on the subject, with stories that show how memory cannot or should not be permanent.

The idea that forgetting is okay, even desirable also punctuates our everyday idioms: “forgive and forget” and “let bygones be bygones.” So why shouldn’t European authorities command the same from Google?

In the recent court case, which turned on a Spanish man’s 1998 bankruptcy, that is what the judges did. They said, in effect, that a long-ago financial event should not be a calling card atop Google results for the rest of the man’s life.

It’s easy to see how others with a mistake in their past might wish the same thing. The alternative is to be dogged by Google, with those earlier indiscretions bubbling up forever before every potential date or employer.

That is why some in the U.S., where the First Amendment protects Google’s search results, turn to shadowy reputation management firms to escape the past. One of the firms’ common black-op tricks, for those who can afford to pay, is to churn out a barrage of false or irrelevant webpages that push the incriminating search result out of site.

In this context, an official forgetting law might be fine, even preferable. Unfortunately, the way Europe plans to go about it is not.

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Selecting the shepherds of history

In 2008, media outlets published a video of Max Mosley, a F1 racing executive and the son of British Nazis, in a sex romp with German-speaking prostitutes dressed as camp guards. Since then, Mosley has mounted a vigorous legal campaign to punish the media, and to force Google to remove search results in France and Germany.

As a result of the new European court ruling, ordinary people may be able to purge embarrassing personal information in the same way. The question is who will do this and how.

Google has so far suggested it will not simply agree to remove all requests, but will assess them on a case-by-case basis. This will be a costly process, leading some to fret that Google will eventually decide to implement an automated system to take down all the requests.

For now, though, Germany — where many of the early takedown requests are taking place — is proposing a new type of cyber-court to resolve the conflicts that pit personal privacy against the public interest.

Google, for its part, said it is convening a committee of wise men, including CEO Larry Page and its top lawyer, David Drummond, to assess the issue. The advisory group also reportedly includes academics, the head of Wikipedia and a United Nations official.

The result, then, is that squads of bureaucrats and Google’s assembly of experts are now poised to devise a system to determine which portions of Europe’s past will be indexed as search results and which will not. (Some suggest that a record of the search links that disappear may turn up the website Chilling Effects).

Even if this small clutch of bureaucrats and wise men come up with a workable system, however, it remains to be seen who it will serve. Typically, it is those like Mosley, who possess money and influence, who are best able to avail themselves of legal tools like the one the European court has introduced.

This means that, short of suspending the process altogether, European authorities should set the bar as high as possible for the removal of search results. Otherwise, the continent’s hard-won right to remember its past could slip away once more.