A writer friend of mine – let us call him Andy – has been suffering for years from a bad review he received in a Sunday paper in 1997. It was awful – an 18-carat stinker that left him, figuratively speaking, bruised and bewildered.
I’ve told him several times to forget it, accentuate the positive (he’s had many appreciative notices over the years) and move on.
But he can’t. Why? Because every time he inspects his Google entry, the damning review sits at the top of the page, glowing with menace. It even carries a photo of the reviewer, his Nemesis, grinning malevolently.
Andy has tried to get it removed, but Google will not play ball. He’s asked that it be shifted down the list of articles about him, to somewhere out of sight, but no dice. The search engine deems that removing data about someone, just because it upsets them or hurts their feelings, amounts to censorship.
Well, Andy's a fool, I hear you say, for checking his online profile. Self-Googlers, like eavesdroppers, seldom hear anything good about themselves.
But I sympathise with his plight. Because, in a culture of wholesale digital objectification, it means he carries a 1,000-word insult around with him wherever he goes. It’s as if, whenever he meets new people, he’s sporting a badge on his lapel saying, “I got this really crap review 17 years ago…”
Now, however, there’s hope for the Andys of this world. A Spanish chap called Mario Costeja Gonzalez complained that a search of his name on Google called up newspaper articles from 16 years ago, which revealed that his house had been repossessed and was up for auction because he couldn’t, at the time, pay his debts.
Mr Gonzalez maintained that Google infringed his privacy, that the information was irrelevant and outdated and should be removed. Google rejected his claim. But an EU court in Luxembourg has now ruled that Google “must amend some search results at the request of ordinary people”.
This is like throwing a lit stick of dynamite into the debate about freedom of speech and the right to privacy. It has prompted an explosion of nonsense from the normally admirable Index on Censorship, which condemned the court’s decision.
An Index spokesman said: “It violates the fundamental principles of freedom of expression. It allows individuals to complain to search engines about information they do not like, with no legal oversight. This is akin to marching into a library and forcing it to pulp books.”
This, may I remind you, is a libertarian pressure group. Does it really believe that members of the public shouldn’t be allowed to complain about how the data of their own lives is used?
Does it honestly see an equivalence between “freedom of expression” and the freedom of a search engine to edit the details of your life as it sees fit? Does it really think asking Google to remove, say, the record of a political view you once held but don’t hold any more is the same as forcing a library to pulp books?
You’d prefer not to be reminded of that sorry love affair from 20 years ago? What are you, some kind of Nazi with a flamethrower?
In 2012, the EU proposed a law that gives people whose data is viewable online “the right to be forgotten”, and although the law hasn’t yet been made concrete, the implications are tremendous.
Will felons, fraudsters and lawbreakers be able to conceal their past? Well, no, because they will have a police record, available to access under the Freedom of Information Act.
Will philandering MPs be able to wipe all trace of their indiscretions from the Google record like that memory-eraser stick wielded by the Men in Black? No, because they are public figures whose transgressions affected their competence in positions of power.
How, though, about the rest of us? Will we be able to monitor what is known about us online? Do we, in fact, have a clue what exactly is known about us in cyberspace?
For some blinding insights, it’s hard to beat Privacy, the brilliant play by James Graham that’s packing London’s Donmar Warehouse. Every evening it shocks audience members by showing them how much about their lives is already known, filed, noted, stamped, cross-referenced, analysed and correlated with a thousand other pieces of information.
People in the audience are encouraged to take selfies on their smartphones, from which the play’s producers can deduce where they live (look, there’s your house on Google Maps), what they were doing last Saturday (who’s that gurning with you on Facebook?) and how often you access porn channels (and for how long…).
The play’s creepiest revelation, however, is that the digital world, between search engines and social media, is busily constructing its own idea of who you are, until it threatens to eclipse your identity. It’ll tell you your taste in music. It’ll notice your change in eating patterns, ladies, and tell you you’re pregnant. It’ll monitor your purchases.
Google says it doesn’t “control” data, that it merely offers links to information freely available on the internet. But surely it’s self-evident that individuals should have rights over their own personal data. It is not for Google to have the freedom to edit it as it pleases, like a puppet master. That is a monstrous intrusion on our private lives.
Privacy, the play, ends with an admirable sentiment: “If the trail you leave behind you in the past dictates the way you are in the future, how can you possibly ever change?”, and suggests that “every generation needs to re-contract its attitude to privacy”.
The Luxembourg court’s enlightened ruling in favour of the hapless Mr Gonzalez, and against the Google juggernaut, may represent the first drafting of that new contract. Let us hope so.
Howard Jacobson is awayReuse content