Google: The ‘right to be forgotten’ is also a licence to rewrite history – and for that reason it must be opposed

In balancing the “right to be forgotten” and the “right to know”, the latter has to take precedence

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On the surface, the “right to be forgotten”, as it has quickly come to be known, sounds reasonable. As the European Court ruled, it seems harsh on some individuals that a youthful indiscretion or aberrant behaviour be preserved in cyberspace for all time. After all, convicted criminals have the right, in due course, not to have their crime held against them in certain circumstances, and bankrupts can eventually regain their credit rating. But those who have merely said, done or been filmed or photographed doing something slightly silly will never be allowed to forget it, once it has found its way on to a web page or a tweet. If you shoplifted a packet of sweets as a child, say, should you for ever be haunted by it?

Such is the force of the theoretical case. But it does not long survive exposure to the real world. Which body should exercise such a judgement? Should it be an unaccountable company such as Google? What criteria should be used? How can there be consistency? And, most crucially of all, what can a British or European court do if the information is searched for via Google.com (outside their jurisdiction) rather than Google.co.uk, for example? Nothing – and fresh anomalies and injustices would be generated by Google picking which cases to allow and disallow.

Even if Google agreed to challenge the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, guaranteeing free speech (an ambitious task even for this global giant), there would surely be another search engine registered in some failed state that would be happy to take on Google’s search engine business. Besides, the culture of Western societies, partly because of the existence of so much data on the web, has now shifted irrevocably to an instinct for knowledge and information.

To take one highly emotive example, it is perfectly understandable – and in the spirit of her judicial right to anonymity – that information about Maxine Carr’s new identity and her whereabouts be kept off the web by whatever means possible. However, it would be absurd to have a situation where her role in the Soham murders could be erased from the public domain because she had filled in a form to that effect and emailed it off to Google. Nor, in reality, is such an outcome remotely likely.

In balancing the “right to be forgotten” and the “right to know”, the latter has to take precedence. Even if that were not the case, the uncomfortable truth is that the web long since ran out of reach of the law of any and every country.

As with taxation, the environment, the financial system and much else, the problem with regulating the web is simply another manifestation of the problem of implementing internationally accepted rules across every jurisdiction in the world, including the likes of Somalia or Afghanistan, where even a basic rule of law has long since disappeared.

It is not too cynical to say that such a global government will not evolve in the lifetime of those hoping to benefit from a “right to be forgotten”. Innocent or guilty, reformed or recidivist, saint or sinner, the web means that none of us will ever be forgotten.

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