The End of Internet Freedom?

The European Court of Justice ruling this year is a watershed moment for the info sphere - it redefines the individual's relationship to his/her online data, not to mention presenting a practical quandrum for search giants like Google.

There is a saying that 'the internet never forgets'. Mario Costeja would certainly agree. In 2009 the Spaniard took Google to court after he noticed searches for his name were pulling up legal notices from the late 1990's. Against all expectations, Mr. Costeja won, and thanks to him we now all have the 'right to be forgotten' online. But do we deserve this right? Do we deserve the right to decide what is acceptable and what isn't?

The European Court of Justice ruling this year is a watershed moment for the info sphere - it redefines the individual's relationship to his/her online data, not to mention presenting a practical quandrum for search giants like Google.

For many, the right to be forgotten undermines the internet's greatest strength: its neutrality. The internet is, in effect, an enormous library. Each piece of news, gossip and information is filed impartially and neutrally, catalogued in gargantuan search engines like books on shelves. The strength of this library lies in its size and impartiality. The internet hasn't been stacked to show a particular view or idea. Anyone can go in, take out some reading, and base their outlook on the evidence they are presented with. No-one is claiming this is a perfect system, but it's a hind sight more democratic than censorship.

In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson declared, "Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is free to combat it". Though there are times when we may be frustrated by the lies reported in a free world, if we allow truth and falsehood to grapple for long enough, he reasoned, truth will always win out.

According to the first amendment, The European Court's ruling undermines this free market of opinions. It removes the individual's right to distinguish what is right or wrong, useful or immaterial. The risk, according to the Times and others, is that aggrieved individuals could use the decision to hide or suppress information of public importance, including links about elected officials. A recent report by a committee of the House of Lords called the decision "misguided in principle and unworkable in practice."

The legislation is shrouded in subjectivity, requiring links to be 'inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant' to sanction removal. In deciding which links fall under this definition, Google itself acts as both judge, jury and executioner, and it executes its power willingly: Of the hundred and twenty thousand requests for deletion since May, Google has only granted around half. Instead of handing power back to individuals Jules Polonetsky, executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum, believes the EU decision hands more power to the search engines themselves, "For the Court to outsource to Google complicated case-specific decisions about whether to publish or suppress something is wrong. Requiring Google to be a court of philosopher kings shows a real lack of understanding about how this will play out in reality."

In truth, the ECJ's ruling is classically European. Unlike our American cousins, privacy has always trumped freedom of speech in Europe. Many have noticed similarities between the arguments for data protection today and the arguments for removing racism and sexism from free speech protection in the 1980s. Then, as now, legislation was bought about under the kindest of intentions. Richard Knowles noted how freedom of speech was being threatened "not by our enemies, but by our friends". And then, as now, people fear a 'mission creep' of restraints to internet freedoms under a disguise of liberalism and privacy.

This is not to say there are not issues to be addressed. The notion of Google as a passive intermediary in the modern information economy is dubious. Marc Rotenberg, the president of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, in Washington, D.C., argued that, Google is no longer just a library but a "bookstore and the newsstand". They have all collapsed into Google's realm." Many supporters of the Court's decision see it, at least in part, as a vehicle for addressing Google's enormous power. "I think it was a great decision, a forward-looking decision, which actually strengthens press freedoms," Rotenberg said.

The Internet's unregulated honeymoon seems to be coming to an end. That may please Mr Costeja and politicians who fancy giving their online presence a bit of a makeover, but its judgement day for others. "If somebody said 'I want everyone to forget about this book that I published because it's embarrassing', how would you implement that? You would have to break in to people's homes and take the book off the bookshelves." Said Vint Cerf, the father of the internet. For many, the EU has broken into all our houses. Which books will go missing in the process is anyone's guess.

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