Douglas: The freedom to be forgotten


Sam Douglas, Columnist

People rarely desire to be forgotten. Constantly surrounded and bombarded with the importance of fame and fortune, we actually fear it. But on Tuesday, the European Union’s high court ruled that it would be possible for people to request that Google take down information about them that they found unsavory. And Google must comply. It cannot remove the information entirely, but it also cannot link to it.

Simultaneously heralded and hated, this case began in 2009 as Mario Costeja Gonzalez, a Spanish lawyer, discovered legal notices concerning debts online that he considered no longer relevant because they had been resolved.

In The New York Times’ front-page article on the ruling, David Streitfeld bluntly and glibly sweeps away any supposition that legislation like this could pass in America.

“In the United States, the court’s ruling would clash with the First Amendment,” he writes.

Oh, David. Give us a chance to talk about it first.

The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.”

But what does that mean? Though centuries of scholars have tried, with varying degrees of success and failure, to define free speech, I will add my voice to the chorus.

Is freedom of speech a freedom to records everything on the Internet for everyone to access? No. If anything, it does the opposite. Freedom of speech is a freedom to present yourself to the world. It is not a requirement that everything you say or do be recorded. It also includes — or should include — the right to be forgotten.

Another aspect of freedom of speech is the freedom of expression. This, according to the U.S. court system, also includes the right not to speak. The right to have information erased is intertwined with the right not to speak or, perhaps more aptly, the right not to have spoken.

Is that changing or erasing history? Not at all. The information is still on the Internet, it just happens that Google cannot link to it anymore. The website where the information can be found still exists, just not as apparently so to the wider global community.

A fear that comes with this legislation — and, I will concede, rightly so — is that politicians and those in power will use the ability to erase bad business transactions, bankruptcy or scandals from their web-based records. However, even before Costeja Gonzalez received his verdict, Google has had a way for information to be erased in Europe. According to Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, a professor of Internet governance at the Oxford Internet Institute and the author of “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age,” during a period of 30 years, the number of Europeans who have requested information to be deleted would be in the thousands.

As our nation and our world explore the depths of what it means to live publicly, it is important to give an opportunity to those who choose not to do so. Perhaps requiring that a search engine be responsible for taking down information at someone’s whim is unrealistic. However, a mechanism must be created to allow people to obtain, as Mayer-Schoenberger says, “a little of the ephemerality and the forgetfulness of pre-digital days” and to be able to live comfortably, knowing that they have control over the way they have presented themselves to the rest of the world. While I may be drowned out by news juggernauts like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, I do believe in the importance of keeping an open dialogue.

Sam Douglas is a Communication sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].