Internet ruling will lead to censorship
The European Court of Justice has been a force for good in our lives. It has copperfastened many basic rights and helped to put manners on overbearing forces, from oppressive national laws to mega-corporations seeking cartels and monopolies.
It has also shown a progressive streak in our digital lives, recently striking down Ireland's too-strict data retention laws.
But last week, it crossed a very big line. It was asked to decide whether someone's right to remain hidden from the internet should trump the public's right to know about important issues.
It chose the former. Under the principle of the "right to be forgotten", every EU citizen now has a legal right to remove search information about themselves. In other words, any Google or Yahoo (or Bing) result that results from a search of your name can now be deleted by you, upon request. (Bizarrely, the original article or content linked to cannot be deleted under the new law.)
It is a uniform rule, applying as much to bankers and businessmen as to you and I. The intention is to protect ordinary citizens' personal reputations. The result is an oncoming whitewash of huge areas of business and public life.
Make no mistake: it is principally the rich and powerful who will avail of this. While it applies to anyone, those with the biggest imperative and incentive to take immediate and comprehensive action at scrubbing their names from all possible searches will surely be bankers, solicitors, stockbrokers, accountants, board committee members and other such individuals. One lawyer told me this week that corporate 'makeovers' will now become a standard service for clients.
The result is that, in five years time, almost no-one in Ireland will – officially – have ever gone bankrupt or been involved in a questionable business transaction.
One of the most depressing elements of the judgement is the weakness in which any 'public interest' exception to this mass online redaction is defined. While the European Court refers to such a public interest exception (which is supposed to prevent prominent politicians or paedophiles from taking advantage of it), each case appears to require an arbiter. Anyone who thinks that Google is going to reassign 1,000 people to some new ECJ Public Interest Arbitration Division is living in dreamland. Google, a private sector business, is far more likely simply to set up a web form that allows people to delete links largely as they please. In other words, the 'public record' is now open to revisionism on an unprecedented scale.
Already, details have started to seep through about individuals who have requested deletion of Google links to articles about them. Google says that a high proportion of them relate to criminals.
While that is the element making headlines, it is arguably not the paedophiles we need to worry about. The online revisionism of millions of self-interested white-collar managers, investors and deputy bosses is surely of more concern to those with any interest in proper accountability.
Take Ireland's banking bailout. Many of us are still trying to get to the bottom of what actually happened in several crucial periods around 2009 and 2010. Most of it is not a criminal matter. Few have been arrested or charged with anything. And yet there are hundreds of individuals, from senior civil servants to bankers to secretaries to investors who play a crucial role in our understanding of what happened and why. This ruling opens up the possibility that much of that knowledge, while being permitted to remain published on the servers of the newspapers, can not now be searchable.
Are we really comfortable with this? Is the right to be forgotten worth the sacrifice we are now about to make in terms of transparency, openness and accountability?
To be fair, there are some decent arguments on the other side of the coin. It is a fair observation that Google has become more than a private company and something of a public utility. Furthermore, much of its power remains unchecked. I've spoken to many small businesses who seethe with resentment at Google's private algorithms that do not, as they see it, give them a fair chance to compete. (Google responds by saying that it tries to be as even-handed as possible.)
Another decent argument in favour of the right to be forgotten is that the internet is a relatively recent thing. Enforcing a right to privacy in this way is necessary, according to the argument, because outdated and out-of-context events (such as a school expulsion, a divorce or even a bankruptcy) can now follow you around forever. People should surely have the right to have a second chance.
But the feeling remains that this may be too heavy a price to pay for the right to be forgotten online.
We need to balance our rights and make sure that people's reputations are protected. But do we really want to enter an age where white-collar professionals censor the web?