February 28, 2012

The "Right to Be Forgotten": A Threat We Dare Not Forget

Imagine that you're conducting a Google Search for "Beatles" -- but mysteriously, the only results you receive are links to official, authorized pages for their song downloads and related corporate promotional materials. Or perhaps you enter a search for "Rick Santorum" -- but the search results are all links to pages on his official campaign website. Maybe a simple query regarding "John F. Kennedy" provides lots of details about his official presidential papers, but not a single link to information about his reported extramarital activities that we know about today. Or do we know about them? After all, if they're not in the search results, perhaps they don't exist. Right?

Wrong! But there are governments, individuals, and organizations who would very much like to make "disappearing search results" scenarios come true on a vast scale, creating a new form of censorship that would make previous censorship efforts -- on and off the Internet -- pale by comparison.

We know that search engines like Google are required to abide by valid, legal orders concerning the removal of search results. To date, these have been relatively limited in terms of scope, though there are already many egregious examples of what most of us would probably agree are inappropriate takedown orders.

The thankfully now moribund SOPA and PIPA legislation would likely have mandated the removal of search results involving the location of materials that the MPAA, RIAA, and other groups felt were illicit, and in the process would have done enormously wide damages across the Net.

But at least SOPA/PIPA supporters weren't trying to erase from memory even the existence of those songs and films! They obviously didn't want us to forget that The Beatles were a great group, or that "Citizen Kane" is a wonderful film.

Today though, governments around the world and allied pressure groups, especially in Europe but also elsewhere, even here in the U.S., are pushing a dangerous censorship concept much more akin to Stalin's alteration and censorship of photos than to even the controls envisioned by SOPA and PIPA.

Generally called the "right to be forgotten" (RTBF), this ultimately insidious concept embodies the view that governments, corporations, other organizations -- and individuals -- should have what amounts to absolute control over related publicly available information, especially in search engine results.

Note that our key words here are "publicly available." By and large we're not talking about private data, we're talking about information on public websites that particular individuals or other entities would prefer didn't show up in associated search results.

The theory seems simple. If you can dictate and micromanage (for example) Google Search results, you hope to prevent searchers from finding unfavorable information about you, whether true or false.

Various types of situations where the "right to be forgotten" has already been invoked includes people acquitted of crimes who had highly publicized trials, doctors trying to suppress complaints from upset patients, a resort unhappy that stories of a fire disaster from decades ago are still associated with their location, and (much more sympathetically) individuals who are the target of websites that were created to harass, libel, or injure them in other ways.

The focus on search engines in these regards is a consequence of several factors.

One issue is the reality that information on the Net, once available publicly, can be virtually impossible to actually remove, given the global availability of mirrors, archives, and other systems in various jurisdictions that can copy and preserve virtually any data.

So -- the thinking goes -- rather than try actually taking actions against the various websites that are the real publishers of the data in question, targeting search engines make for more of a "one stop shopping" regime, to try block people from finding the data even if it's still really out there.

Another factor is that the legal bar can be high in some countries for libel and other similar suits. So if governments can be convinced to anoint essentially everyone with the right to demand censorship of any search results that they feel relate unfavorably to themselves, that much lower burden could be widely exploited.

It doesn't take more than a few minutes of thought to see the utterly disastrous ramifications of the "right to be forgotten" approach, and the cascading damage to free speech that could easily spread malignantly across the global Internet as a result.

The crux of the matter is simple enough. Even if search engine results are selectively expunged on demand, the "upsetting" material in question will still likely exist on the Internet itself, still subject to being located by other means, including via sites that merely discuss related topics, situations, companies, or individuals.

This is a crucial point.

To be "forgotten" in the usual sense of the "right to be forgotten" proponents would typically end up requiring not only that direct references to sites containing "offending" materials be expunged from search results, but also links to any sites that so much as specifically (or in many cases even generally) discuss, critique, analyze, or otherwise mention the materials in question, or that even note the removal of the more direct links from search engine results themselves!

So a site that so much as says, "A controversy arose about whether or not Dr. Foo was providing quality health care, resulting in Google being ordered to remove links to sites operated by those patients," could itself trigger an order that demanded the removal of links mentioning the controversy involving Dr. Foo -- that he would prefer be "forgotten."

Like ripples spreading from rocks tossed into a pond, the range of directly and indirectly related sites whose links could be ordered censored from search engine results will tend to spread, multiply, and interact in complex ways, pulling ever more websites into "right to be forgotten" censorship demands.

And for all that damaging censorship and invasive restrictions on speech, the primary materials in question will likely still remain easily available. In fact, attempts to remove and censor information on the Net can paradoxically trigger even more attention -- the exact opposite of what had been intended -- through the so-called Streisand effect.

I do not accept as credible the claims of some "right to be forgotten" proponents that just getting the top, main related links out of Google Search results will be enough to satisfy them. It is inevitable that as the reality of the complex network graph associated with such information becomes obvious, calls for ever broader censorship orders, targeting results and links increasingly "distant" from the core sites, will be forthcoming in massive numbers, in a gigantic, nightmarish version of search results "Whac-A-Mole."

The only rational approach to the kinds of disputes invoked by "right to be forgotten" advocates should not be censorship, and should not be attempts to delete information and references to that information.

Rather, we should be concentrating on providing more information, more context in case of disputes, not less.

While the "right to be forgotten" may at first glance seem to have laudable goals, it is in truth an impractical and ultimately abusive concept, that cannot realistically accomplish its stated goals, but that would inevitably do enormous damage to the valid speech rights of an ever widening sphere of organizations and individuals around the world.

It is a dangerous chimera that would create vast new problems, not solve existing ones.

The right to be forgotten is a threat that we dare not forget, but that we should most soundly and totally reject.


Posted by Lauren at February 28, 2012 05:26 PM | Permalink
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