Digital Book Burning? Free Speech and the Right to be Forgotten

by Matt Klassen on September 9, 2015

Imagine you went to your local library to do some research on Canada’s treatment of Japanese nationals living here during World War II, a controversial topic dealing with truly atrocious and certainly embarrassing actions akin to some of the worst human rights violations we rail against today. Now imagine those books were gone because some member of the Canadian government invoked the “Right to be Forgotten,” hoping to strike such information from the historical record.

There’s no doubt that many of would cry foul, arguing that such fascist control over the dissemination of information smacks of something we might have seen from some of the worst totalitarian regimes in history, certainly not something we’d expect to see from the bastions of democracy and free speech,

Yet that seems to be exactly the sort of thing sweeping across Europe and potentially further, as French regulators recently began to push to extend the EU’s so-called “Right to be Forgotten” across the globe, allowing people to strike information from the digital record, and as some have noted, this seems awfully close to some sort of digital book burning, trampling over people’s free speech and potentially altering how history is recorded and remembered.

It should be noted once again at the outset that the EU’s Right to be Forgotten has really nothing to do with the creation or dissemination of information, as nothing instituted so far targets people who actually post the information in question on the Internet. The legislation targets the search engines, the only method users have to actually access that information. But we would never let this happen in our libraries, why are search engines any different?

In fact, today search engine giants ostensibly stand as the libraries of the digital age, the gatekeepers, organizers, and cataloguers of information, but not the disseminators of that information. As the pressure increases on Google and other search engine providers to eliminate controversial search results, I have to wonder how much different this would be from a library that had been emptied of books considered subversive or otherwise unacceptable.

Consider this: Recently actor Ben Affleck came into some hot water over the genealogical results presented on the TLC show ” Who Do You Think You Are?,” a shameless promotion for the website to be sure, but one that offers a truly interesting look into the past history of some of the most famous people in America. The controversy regarding Affleck arose when it was discovered his ancestors were slave owners, and that Affleck secretly petitioned the show to withhold that information. A media battle ensued with the show claiming it shouldn’t have to curb its rights to present historical information, and Affleck subsequently acquiesced.

But just imagine that same scenario in the era of the “Right to be Forgotten.” What would stop Affleck from simply erasing history, removing access to the records of his ancestors, thus all but white washing his past and eliminating the controversial information from the historical record altogether? Now imagine what our history books, or any history-related webpage, would look like when everyone has eliminated everything that causes public or personal embarrassment.

As Google’s Global Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer wrote last month, if the search engine were to comply with the order to expand the “Right to be Forgotten” globally, “the Internet would only be as free as the world’s least free place.” As disconcerting as that is, though, what I find truly disconcerting is that right now the least free places in the world are the ones I would expect to be the most free, bastions of democracy and free speech that have inexplicably embraced this philosophy of digital book burning.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. Follow by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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