Remember Justine Sacco, the PR exec who famously tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” before hopping aboard a flight to South Africa last December? The tweet went viral while she was airborne and, by the time she landed, half the planet thought she was an insensitive racist jerk. Then she got fired.
But that wasn’t the worst of it, not by a long shot. To this day, Googling her name generates hundreds of thousands of results that, near as I can tell, all reference her ill-conceived brush with infamy. She’ll probably have to change her name to escape the episode and Google’s web crawlers and indexers.
Unless, of course, Sacco moves to Europe. In its infinite wisdom, the European Union Court of Justice has ruled that people can demand that Google (GOOG) remove links in search results for their name, and the Silicon Valley company has to comply. And there’s no appeal on such a ruling by the EU’s highest court. This is a done deal.
Bet you didn’t see that coming. I know I didn’t. Apparently, neither did Google.
On the surface, it sounds reasonable enough. You’ve done something dumb or somebody important posts something terrible about you, why shouldn’t there be a recourse to set the record straight?
Someone who really wants to dig stuff up on you might still be able to find whatever it is you’d like hidden (although, among the billions of online pages, without a search engine, I’m not sure how). But why should one or two incidents dominate the first place everyone looks to find out about you and color your personal brand for all of eternity?
But when you stop and think about it, when you let the implications of this unassailable ruling sink in, the idea is so wrong and its implementation will have to be so subjective that it will undoubtedly threaten – not just the integrity of the Internet – the integrity of what used to be a free society.
Consider this: Should we erase an entry from the Library of Congress for any reason? We wouldn’t burn any books – Fahrenheit 451 style – but just delete the references so we can make believe they don’t exist – that the events they chronicle never really happened – and make everyone search through thousand of shelves to find them.
And which references to which books would we erase? The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. You’ve got to admit, that was some pretty evil stuff. I’m sure there are white supremacy groups that would love to see that go away. How about Ball Four, the blockbuster that embarrassed Major League Baseball and tarnished Mickey Mantel’s pristine reputation? Or The Smartest Guys in the Room, about the Enron scandal? What about novels like Atlas Shrugged? I know an awful lot of people that would kill to see all references to Ayn Rand’s controversial and politically charged work simply vanish into thin air.
The EU’s highest court says we all have “the right to be forgotten,” that events from the past – however lawful and accurate their representations might be – simply stop being relevant or become excessive, in time. We should all have the right to move on with our lives and let the past be forgotten. Let bygones be bygones.
For some strange reason, Hilary Clinton shouting, “What difference, at this point, does it make?” over the Benghazi terrorist attacks and the still unexplained deaths of four American heroes comes to mind.
I can see it now. Every special interest group on Earth, every thin-skinned politically correct person who has ever been offended by something somebody wrote about them, everyone who has ever done something evil or stupid and thinks he’s changed or learned his lesson but actually hasn’t – they’re all banging away at their millions of keyboards searching Google (where else?) for FAQs on how to file their complaints.
And their lawyers are already counting the billings they’ll be racking up … cha-ching.
The pundits are calling this an issue of people’s privacy rights versus the public’s right to know, but it’s not. It’s not even close. It’s not even in the same ballpark. It’s institutionalized censorship of information, plain and simple. And the way the EU court left its implementation so open to interpretation makes it that much more troubling, if not alarming.
Granted, I can think of some exceptions, but Google and individual courts should handle them under current law.
As a new rule of law, on the other hand, the EU court’s ruling – which some are already calling a landmark decision – amounts to nothing but a monstrous push down the slippery slope from a free society to a censored one. Once we start down that path, there really is no turning back.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive and author of the upcoming book, "Real Leaders Don't Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur." Learn more, contact Tobak or follow his new blog at stevetobak.com. Any opinions expressed are those of the columnist.