Complex issues are often oversimplified so that they can be communicated in a 15-second sound bite. And when it comes to oversimplifying complex privacy issues, many would skip serious thoughtful discussion and resort to terms like “Orwellian” or “1984.” But this “Cliff’s Notes” version of sophisticated privacy discussions rarely matches the actual text of George Orwell’s masterpiece.
We all know the novel 1984, or at least we think we do. But we tend to focus on the technology involved in the story and miss the underlying warning Orwell was trying to give. Orwell’s “Big Brother is Watching” was not about fear of new technology or businesses, but a cautionary tale about government’s unfettered access to information and the misuse of technology.
The European Court of Justice’s “Right to be Forgotten” ruling upsets a foundational principle regarding openness of the Internet – it has always been viewed as a platform to express one’s opinion and access information. This ruling converts websites from intermediaries into censors, forcing them to balance Europeans’ right to information against individuals’ demands to suppress lawfully published information about them.
The European court gave little practical guidance on how search services should strike this balance. So Google, the first Internet business to be targeted by the ruling, created a panel of legal, policy, and technological experts to address the challenge.
The day Google opened its online submission process to comply with the European “right to be forgotten” ruling, the company received 12,000 requests – one every seven seconds – from users demanding that information be pulled from search results.
The cost of ignoring those requests, or getting them “wrong” in the eyes of the EU courts? Google could face fines of a billion dollars per incident. In the European Union, the process of whitewashing history is underway.
With the ruling, the court is forcing Google to perform the impossible balancing act between the newly invented “right” be forgotten and the Internet’s unique power to preserve, contextualize, and disseminate information.