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TMCNet:  Can the Internet learn to forget? [The Philadelphia Inquirer :: ]

[June 27, 2014]

Can the Internet learn to forget? [The Philadelphia Inquirer :: ]

(Philadelphia Inquirer (PA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) June 28--Do we have a "right to be forgotten"? Nope.

They do now in Europe. But will this "right" cross the Atlantic? Not likely. That doesn't mean people aren't pretzeled with indignation about it.

The question is whether we have a right to get search services like Google and Yahoo to delete or suppress information -- to "forget" us.

On May 13, the European Court of Justice ruled yes. It's been a hot issue for years over there. In 2010, a Spanish lawyer sued to get Google to take down pages showing a 1998 auction notice on his home. It damaged his reputation, he argued, was misleading, and was out of date.


Google said no, the case was kicked up to the high court, and Google lost. The court saw Google as an "information controller" and told it to give users an option to erase search results that are "inadequate, irrelevant . . . excessive" or "outdated." In the hours following the decision, Google found itself awash in more than 12,000 requests for info takedowns.

Proponents of the Internet, which is based on freedom of access to info, turned their mouth corners way down. The heads of pundits, especially in the United States, went blooey. "Will newspapers be forced to erase what they link to or quote?" said Web guru and CUNY professor Jeff Jarvis. He called the ruling "offensive to an open and modern society and in history is a device used by tyrannies." Dan Gillmor wrote in the Guardian that the right to be forgotten "isn't as far removed from censorship as we might want to believe." Google is an elephant that never forgets. Lots of things get posted about lots of people on the Net. And much of it just stays. Forever. Truths, lies, misleading, slanderous gossip, last century's smears, it doesn't matter. As long as there are 1's and 0's, info is out there and stays out there. And when Google dips its big snout in the information river, it sucks up almost anything.

That could, in theory, hurt people. Say I'm applying for a job. My prospective employer Googles me, and finds John Timpane reform school 1969. (I didn't go, but let's say I did.) Forget that job. My reform school days were 45 years ago, but forget that job.

So there are issues of fairness here. And nobody knows quite how to address them.

The Google ruling lays bare the big differences between EU law and ours. In terms of rights and privacy, EU law tends more toward the individual than the corporate entity; not so here. Over here, Google is seen more as a media company, a publisher, protected by all sorts of rights.

Our vaunted, cherished "right to privacy" is more our assumption than an actual thing. No such right is spelled out in the Constitution, although we do have laws against specific invasions and outrages, such as unlawful search and seizure, slander, libel, and so on. Ours is a messy, ill-defined patchwork of state and federal rules, laws, and precedents.

Plus, the First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of speech, often collides with our presumption of privacy. If you can say anything you want, or get any public records you want about my life, I have little right to stop you.

The European ruling, to be kind, is as clear as the Schuylkill. What's excessive, irrelevant, or inadequate? When does info become outdated? Nobody knows for sure. In what cases can I ask for the delete option? I can't, not even in Europe, for unexpunged criminal records. Or newspaper reports. But . . . medical records? There's no international "law of the Internet." Countries disagree, and none wants to give up even a shade of sovereignty. So . . . could a European court make a U.S. company do, um, anything Internet-related? Could European companies be told they could not do business with U.S. companies that ignored the right to be forgotten? Nobody knows.

Courts overreach. Some people think that's what happened on June 14, when a judge in British Columbia ordered Google to block access to a set of websites all over the world. Can Canada do that to Google? Can any court or country? Wondrous puzzle: The Internet has no borders. Neither does information. But the geopolitical world rests heavily on borders. People are scrambling to figure out what rules should prevail.

What's going to happen? On a global scale, someday, all these countries and legal systems should face the mess, reconcile differences, and agree on worldwide conventions. And I am Yogi Bear.

On the medium-colossal scale, Google, told to do something, did. On May 29, it debuted a Web page on which Europeans can request info takedowns. It's pretty old-school: You fill out an application, and human beings read and decide, case by case.

Right now -- and for years to come, it's a good bet -- that's as well as anyone is likely to do.

jt@phillynews.com 215-854-4406 @jtimpane ___ (c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.philly.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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