That's Orwell and Good For Mario, But...

Mario Costeja Gonzalez had a very bad 1998. And it has been following him around like a bad peseta ever since.

Ir began with financial difficulties that led to non-payment of social-security taxes that led to the seizure of a property he co-owned in San Feliú de Llobregat, Catalonia. That was bad. Then the government moved to auction off the real estate, which -- adding insult to injury -- it announced to the world via a legal ad in the local newspaper, La Vanguardia.

That was humiliating. But thanks to the ephemeral nature of today's news (tomorrow's fishwrapper, and all that) the indignity gradually faded. Until 2008, when Costeja Gonzalez -- like all carbon-based life forms -- Googled himself. Thereupon he discovered that La Vanguardia, true to its name, had kept on the leading edge of technology by digitizing its archives -- which meant that the memory of his real-estate misadventure was resurrected to be indexed in search engines per sempre, which is Catalan for “forever.”

He contacted the newspaper and asked for the information be removed, as he had rebuilt his life and the dated information was no longer -- his word -- “relevant.”

Now me, I think if I'm about to go into any kind of transaction with someone who has a checkered financial history, that sort of information would be extremely relevant. But I was not consulted. Worried that his long-ago misfortune would haunt him forever, he filed a complaint that ultimately was adjudicated by the European Union in what has come to be known as the Right to Be Forgotten.

If you don't recall that being mentioned in the Magna Carta or the Helsinki Accords on Human Rights, you are quite correct. To find its like in the past century, as we shall see, you'll have to look elsewhere.

Basically, this novel legal protection gives Europeans the right to petition Google to remove search results rendered irrelevant by the passage of time. And Google must comply. I shall pause now to let those who consider the USA to be a nanny state to compare and contrast.

Okay, good. Now chew on this: an advocacy group called Consumer Watchdog has petitioned the FTC asking that in the name of online privacy, the same right be accorded to Americans. It's in some ways a lovely sentiment. I myself haven't been in any financial hot water or been caught, say, soliciting sex from a police dog, but I have been frequently slimed online and for any curious onlooker that slime is but a few keystrokes away. Who wouldn't love to make that stuff just...poof...disappear?

Except that the earnest, talented lawyers at Consumer Watchdog seemed to have forgotten something called the First Amendment.  As the Association of National Advertisers wrote to the FTC about the issue: "Certain regulations acceptable under European law would be plainly unconstitutional if applied in the United States.” 

You simply don't get to oblige others to delete the parts of your life you are embarrassed or indignant about. If you could, believe me, I'd confiscate every photo taken of me from 1968 to 1983, on hair and wardrobe grounds alone. Plus, if memory serves, I once killed a man in Reno just to watch him die.

Oh, but that's just water under the bridge, the EU says. Why dredge up the past? 

Putting aside the onerous burden on Google of having to administer countless requests and make judgments about relative relevance, there happens to be a very good reason for dredging up the past, no matter how trivial or forgettable: because it happened. I would say it's like something out of Orwell to revise the past according to the sensitivities of the present, but one needn't turn to fiction to find perpetrators of revisionist history. Think: Soviet Russia. (Or for that matter, Putin's Russia.) Think of China mass-forgetting the bloody Cultural Revolution. Think of the mouth-breathing Texas politicians trying to soft-pedal slavery, Jim Crow and the Trail of Tears.

This is not to say privacy shouldn't be protected. This is not to say Google shouldn't be held accountable for how it collects and deploys personal data. But the so-called Right to Be Forgotten is not a guarantor of privacy, because truthful information in public view cannot not be made private again, any more than you can regain your virginity or turn your cigar ash back into a cigar. These things are not reversible.

The Right to be Forgotten isn't even a right. It cannot coexist with the actual Helsinki right of free expression, and is therefore merely a contrivance of a European Union that believes it can regulate away any unpleasantness of modern life. Now I happen to be a proponent of government regulation, because I like to have cops on the beat. But Brussels makes Washington look like a pack of wussies. 

You're a Big Government hater? You think the lefties just want to punish Big Business. Friend, you are seething about the wrong continent.

3 comments about "That's Orwell and Good For Mario, But...".
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  1. Alfredo Pedroso from Sony Pictures Television Networks, August 3, 2015 at 12:07 p.m.

    For someone posing as a snarky and erudite defender of writers and journalists you could have at least nodded in the direction of Jeff Toobin's insightful piece in The New Yorker some months back about the right to be forgotten. 

    And why you would choose to write only about the test case before the European Court of Justice and not the Catsouras incident is probably best left for a discussion with your own conscience. 

    But the truly egregious absence in your little rant is mention of all of the great solutions Google has put in place in Europe to enable the right to be forgetten. It looks like you are full of prescriptions for legacy (and digital) media for their seemingly conflcting and intractable issues about link bait and native content and surviving, yet you're perfectly willing to steal a column idea and ignore the most important part of it in the name of clicks too. 

    Not cool Bob. 

  2. Jonathan McEwan from MediaPost, August 3, 2015 at 12:58 p.m.

    But aren't all rights contrivances of the people who dreamt them up at the time? For example, the right to bear arms? Why is that in our bill of rights, but in pretty much no one else's? Your initial vignette about the guy who had a run in with financial misfortune and then over time rehaibilitated himself and his reputation. It seems natural to me that over time your reputation would be better, in fact, after seven years (10 for bankrupcy filings) in this country you DO have the right for credit agencies to forget your financial misfortunes. So why should it a 20-year-old financial dealing pop up like it happened yesterday on the first page of your Google search results? Why isn't it no longer relevant?

  3. Steve Cameron from Advent Communication S.L., August 4, 2015 at 3:49 a.m.

    If information exists online, then we cannot blame Google for indexing it. This is akin to blaming the Dewey Decimal System for listing a book in a library...

    The issue - if indeed there is an issue to answer - is surely with the webpage that publishes the information and not Google who simply tells you it is there. If the information is removed from the specific website, then Google will remove it (once the page is indexed again) from its index.

    The whole furore surrounding Google and the right to be forgotten seems to me to be a prime case of shooting the messenger.

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