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.