Hiding on the Internet

Last year a European court discovered a “right to be forgotten” on the Internet, allowing Europeans to demand that search engines remove links in search results to news stories and other accurate information that these people don’t want discovered. This development would merely be an amusing reminder to Americans about the absence of a First Amendment in Europe—if it weren’t for a recent demand by French regulators that search engines now censor their results in the U.S., not just in Europe.

Unless the Obama administration can rouse itself to intervene to protect an open Internet, Google could soon have to start deleting search results in the U.S., making the Internet inaccurate for Americans, too.
The European Union’s Court of Justice last year came up with the “right to be forgotten” when it ordered Google to remove links to news stories in search results about a Spanish lawyer who complained about factual reporting on his troubled finances. The court said the articles violated his privacy, even though the accounts were true, and ordered search engines to delist links that are “inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant or excessive.”

This isn’t about privacy—it’s about hiding. Privacy laws protect people from facts about them becoming public. The right to be forgotten is instead a right to make it hard for others to find already public information. News articles remain online, but no longer appear in search results, undermining the main tool employed by Internet users to find reliable information.

Google currently deletes articles from search results only on its European versions, such as the French Google.fr and German Google.de. In June the French privacy regulator ordered Google also to remove stories on Google.com, the global version of its search engine used by Americans. The European court made this extraterritorial demand even though 97% of searches in France employ the French version of Google.

Google appealed, saying a European requirement to censor search results globally “is a troubling development that risks serious chilling effects on the web.” Google noted: “There are innumerable examples around the world where content that is declared illegal under the laws of one country would be deemed legal in others,” citing as examples Thailand’s making it a crime to criticize its king, Turkey’s criminalizing some political speech and Russia’s banning what it calls “gay propaganda.”

Will Google next be ordered to change U.S. search results to comply with Thai, Turkish and Russian interpretations of free speech? As Google put it, if the search engine allows France to edit its results globally, “We would find ourselves in a race to the bottom,” where “in the end, the Internet would only be as free as the world’s least free place.”

European citizens, aided by a cottage industry of “reputation management” firms and lawyers, have invoked their right to be forgotten to get Google to delete links to one million Web pages of information, prevailing in about 40% of applications. BBC news articles suppressed by Google in Europe include reports of convictions of rapists, schoolteachers fired for having sex with students and business commentary during the credit crisis critical of Merrill Lynch. The Daily Telegraph list of its stories no longer searchable on Google in Europe includes its accounts of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik and numerous reports of courts determining that alleged sexual assaults were based on false accusations.

Google recently informed British newspapers that it had been obliged to remove stories about a shoplifting when the perpetrator asked to be forgotten. The Oxford Mail wrote about the removal of its news account about the shoplifter; last week the British Information Commissioner’s Office demanded that Google not include the paper’s follow-up reporting in search results. In other words, Google must remove links to news articles reporting about its being ordered to remove links to news articles.

In contrast to Europe, the U.S. has constitutional protections that would stop courts from demanding search engines expunge accurate results. But so long as French regulators order Google to remove links from searches in the U.S., the company is in a tough position.

Claude Barfield, a trade expert at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in a blog post last week that the French requirement violates free-trade principles: “The key question is why the Obama administration hasn’t taken a stand and stepped in to defend the legitimate interests of a beleaguered U.S. company—and more broadly the principle of allowing accurate, public data to move freely across borders, without encountering censorship or parochial restrictions.”

The European discovery of a right to hide is a reminder that the values at the core of the Internet reflect its roots in the U.S. The open Internet was built on American exceptionalism favoring free speech and permissionless innovation, not censorship and search algorithms vetted by lawyers.

If Europeans prefer censored search results, they are entitled to their censored Internet. But the Obama administration should step up and fight against European demands that Google also censor the accurate search results that should always be available to Americans.

Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/hiding-on-the-internet-1440975213 By L. GORDON CROVITZ

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