Earlier today, The EU Court of Justice ruled that Google must remove “excessive” and “irrelevant” links to otherwise-public and truthful information about individuals. Sounds great, right? After all, who needs a bunch of digital flotsam following them around for all time?
A lot of attention is going to be paid to the putative privacy rights at issue, and the additional cost and complexity that complying with this directive is going to lard onto Google and other search engines. But focusing on such things is missing the larger point: how relatively well-intentioned laws like this burden free expression.
To be sure, there’s little value in a lot of historic crapola floating around online. And most of us have at least something that could be dredged out of the cyber-ooze that we would prefer to see remain buried. But we’ve long concluded – in this country, at least – that the “more speech” solution is better than trying to ban certain pieces of expression. And that’s particularly true when it comes to truthful statements.
One of the great benefits of the American approach to free expression is the “breathing room” it affords for speech. Once you start ruling certain types of speech out-of-bounds – even “excessive” or “irrelevant” speech – you’ve opened the doors to all sorts of expression being called into question. The uncertainty and ambiguity around publishing something becomes far more than a matter of cost or complexity. It makes speakers second-guess whether they are going to speak at all. And it greatly empowers the censor’s veto over speech they don’t like, particularly when the speaker has deep pockets. It’s a pattern seen time and time again in the UK, and one that will surely accelerate in Europe if this “right to be forgotten” picks up traction.
Although of little comfort to Google and other sites that operate internationally, these developments shouldn’t impact US-based speakers and online businesses. As a limitation on truthful speech, there’s no chance that a “right to be forgotten” could comply with the First Amendment. And even if someone obtained a foreign judgment for failure to comply with such a right, the federal SPEECH Act would render that judgment unenforceable in the US.
And lest you think I’m not sensitive to the privacy rights of those pushing for this right, well . . . OK, I’m not. There are no privacy rights in public facts. And no one should go out of their way to find such rights at the expense of free expression.
Here’s a better idea: instead of trying to erase the collective memory of the internet, privacy advocates should devote their energies toward creating a reputation – online or otherwise – that they can be proud of. Even if it’s got a few bumps and rough edges.