August 14, 2015

Why the "Right To Be Forgotten" is the Worst Kind of Censorship

Let's start from a foundational premise on which we hopefully can all agree.

Our abilities to interpret and understand the world around us are predicated on the availability of information.

In the far past, that information was usually entirely based on what we could sense directly or were told by others. Later, written and the printed materials vastly expanded our information reach, both in terms of space and distance, in terms of time and history.

Today it's inarguable that the Internet is the key to our information knowledge, and in the absence of a global catastrophe, it seems slated to expand rapidly in that role.

I define censorship as attempts by governments to control the dissemination of information by third parties, usually backed up with civil and/or criminal sanctions.

Censorship (and attempts at censorship) have likely existed back to the dawn of civilization, and it's been a preferred tool of control by rulers and governments ever since.

In the early days of broad Internet expansion, there was a popular -- though I would assert rather naive -- view that the coming of the Net would sweep away national governments and bring about a utopia of open communications.

Of course that's not exactly what happened.

While domestic governments were generally slow on the uptake to understand the power of the Internet, once it really showed up on their radars many moved rapidly to muzzle that power into traditional censorship realms, with China and Russia leading the way.

It is often said -- I've said it myself -- that's it's nearly impossible to completely censor information on the Net, that the ease of mirroring and the variety of bypass mechanisms available make total blockades enormously difficult.

This is true. But there are provisos to that truth that aren't stated as frequently.

One of these is that even if you can't completely censor particular information, governments can often make it such a hassle -- or so personally dangerous -- to pursue accessing that information as to effectively terrify all but the bravest (or in some cases perhaps the most foolhardy) of their population into submission.

So perhaps you can use a VPN to get at the webpage the government doesn't want you to see. But if you're caught at it, are you willing to risk having your entire family arrested, perhaps beaten, and then spending the next 20 years shackled in a dungeon cell?

The traditional techniques of government oppression have definitely maintained much of their power, even in the Internet age.

But at least in most of these cases you know that the forbidden information exists. You are aware of what the government is trying to block from you.

Which brings us to the second proviso from the truth about censorship.

In true Orwellian fashion, even better than blocking people from information is preventing them from ever realizing that the forbidden information exists in the first place.

And this is where the so-called "Right To Be Forgotten" (RTBF) comes into play.

The key premise of RTBF is that if you can prevent your population from realizing that particular data exists on the Web -- even if they could easily access it given such knowledge -- you've achieved censorship Valhalla.

This is why RTBF focuses its death ray on search engines. Governments realize the typical impracticality of excising all copies of information from all possible Internet sources. So they instead order the burning of the search results "index cards" in a deeply disingenuous attempt to fool their populations into not realizing the associated materials exist at all.

Supporters of RTBF concepts bizarrely attempt to claim that RTBF is not actually censorship, since usually the materials at issue still exist somewhere out on the Web.

But this is deeply cynical and, yes, evil. It's like saying that a child has been locked into a safe, and all you need to save them is to guess the combination.

RTBF proponents also prefer to frame their arguments in terms of early European Union RTBF efforts involving "ordinary" individuals.

But already we're seeing the steepness of the slippery slope of their RTBF.

The EU has already made it clear that not only do they want to censor the Net within their own borders, they want to be global censorship czars. They've said that search engine results they've banned should be removed from global indexes, not just from the localized versions that the vast majority of their population uses.

In a particularly outlandish twist, there have even been EU suggestions that search engines be required by law to specifically identify EU citizens as they travel, so that EU censorship edicts can be applied to them no matter where on the globe they may access the Net.

This isn't simply theoretical. France has already demanded that Google apply French RTBF takedowns around the planet, giving France the ability to control what users everywhere else in the world can see. Google is quite appropriately resisting this horrific edict.

And that's just in Europe.

Elsewhere, democratic and totalitarian governments alike are lining up to try impose their own RTBF censorship on the entire Earth. Putin's Russia has already passed such legislation, even broader and more dangerous than the awful EU variety.

Putin as a global censor? Chinese leaders as global censors?

It's bad enough when Western democracies fall into this trap, but the rush to a lowest common denominator of "acceptable" information that would be triggered by totalitarian leaders exerting such power would be nightmarishly breathtaking to behold.

There is no practical way to proverbially "dip your toe" into RTBF censorship, without ending up quickly and totally submerged and drowning. It's like being "a little bit" pregnant, or setting a match to a piece of flash paper.

Making it crystal clear to our legislatures and political leaders that we will not accept these censorship regimes is absolutely crucial to our civil liberties -- in fact, even to our knowledge going forward of what civil liberties actually are!

This will be an enormously difficult battle, because censorship is very much the natural ally of governments and of politicians.

But if we lose this battle, this war on our basic freedoms, it's very possible that someday -- perhaps not in the very distant future at all -- even these very words you're reading right now may be impossible to ever find again.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so.
All opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Posted by Lauren at August 14, 2015 01:19 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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