Memo to EU: There is no ‘right to be forgotten’

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The European Union’s highest court has ruled that Internet search engines must give serious consideration to users who request they remove links to any content or article that is personally or professionally unflattering, unfavorable or embarrassing.

The EU court attempted to give itself some wiggle room by saying search engines could weigh the deletion request against the overall “public interest” in the information. But its signals were mixed, because the decision principally concerned links to published newspaper articles reporting on events in the public record. The first case involved a 1998 account of a real estate auction that contained details of the complainant’s social security debts. The second involved a plastic surgeon who was the subject of an unsuccessful malpractice suit.

One can be sympathetic to the people involved, especially when the events in question occurred years in the past and long have been resolved. But you can’t help but wonder what happens when you give public servants selective veto power over access to documented history. Even the EU’s advocate general thought search engines had no obligation to honor such requests. In the wake of this ruling, one can imagine, at the very least, every two-bit European politician demanding Google, Bing and Yahoo remove links to any media containing embarrassing comments, gaffes or issue flip-flops.

The EU court apparently bought into the notion of a “right to be forgotten” which, if taken to its logical conclusion, should apply to any index of any kind. LexisNexis is the world’s largest database for legal and public record. How long will it retain its value if a disappointed plaintiff or defendant is allowed to remove a harsh judgment? I’m old enough to remember using The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature (now online as well) as a research aid. Should individuals have the right to redact even the listing of a magazine article that presents them in an unfavorable light?

Rights are a natural extension of personhood. To claim a right to be forgotten, on the other hand, is to claim entitlement to alter or erase history and the experience of others. It is impossible to exercise and, therefore, a literal absurdity. That all but guarantees there will be no limit to the absurdity that will spring from this ruling.

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