The European Court of Justice has famously ruled that Google must abide by a new “Right To Be Forgotten” and stop showing links to stories on request from the people the stories concern. This is not good for privacy; it’s disastrous. Here’s why.
The “right to be forgotten” in the European Union was presented as a privacy-strengthening law, but is the exact opposite. It’s no more strengthening of privacy than tax laws are strengthening of financial autonomy. When the government can order something to be forgotten, it has given itself the right to change history, to erase embarrassment, and to protect its echelons against a free press.
But looking from the bright side, isn’t it good that you can have bad, embarrassing, or outright false stories about yourself deleted from human consciousness? Wouldn’t this be a service you’d be grateful for the government providing, standing up for the little guy against the powerful publishers? Wouldn’t you like to be able to erase those bad photos from Facebook, for example?
To understand why this is bad, we need to first look a little bit closer at what a government is.
One of the primary functions of the modern nation-state government is to settle disputes between its citizens. The idea is to avoid “might makes right” by, ehm, giving a monopoly on legal violence to one entity – the government – which can then outgun every other party in its territory. So it’s not avoiding “might makes right” at all; it’s just putting all the might and all the guns in a trusted party, a government, and then giving it ability to enforce its judgment in disputes.
Such disputes between citizens have always been material – they have concerned transfer of wealth, property, or resources in various ways. But for the first time, an Alice has gone to the government and demanded that a Bob forgets something bad about her.
The government agreed in this dispute, and by doing so, it gave itself a vastly greater power than determining who owns what: it has now taken itself the right to determine who thinks what.
So for the first time ever, a government has given itself the right to determine what somebody may or may not remember, backed by the full gunforce of law enforcement. That’s not good for privacy. That’s disastrous.
A right to be forgotten for somebody else is a right for the government to determine what is and what isn’t in my memory. And yours. That’s terrible.
Privacy remains your own responsibility.