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Spain vs. Google or Freedom of Expression vs. the Right to Be Forgotten

January 17, 2011

Several outlets are reporting today, the interesting clash between Spanish courts and Google. The argument is over whether Google should carry articles that have been challenged by Spanish citizens as breaching their privacy. An injunction was won in the courts by the Spanish data protection commissioner over publication of material that is being challenged under privacy legislation.

Clearly there are two main issues here. One is the specific issue of whether Google, as a search engine, can be considered as a publisher, or as it claims, simply an intermediary which publishes nothing, only linking to items published by others. This is important for Google as a business and for those who use it.

But the other is a more interesting issue which is the deeper question of what is going on here which is the struggle between two kinds of rights. The right to freedom of expression, to be able to say what one likes, is a longstanding one in democracies, however it is almost nowhere absolute. The problem in a search-engine enabled information age, is that these exceptions, which relate to both the (un)truth of published allegations (questions of libel and false accusation) and of privacy and to several other values, are increasingly challenged by the ability of people in one jurisdiction to access the same (libellous, untrue or privacy-destructive) information from outside that jurisdiction via the Internet.

In Spain, the question has apparently increasingly been framed in terms of a new ‘right to be forgotten’ or ‘right to delete’. This is not entirely new – certainly police records in many countries have elements that are time-limited, but these kinds of official individually beneficial forgettings are increasingly hard to maintain when information is ‘out there’ proliferating, being copied, reposted and so on.

This makes an interesting contrast with the Wikileaks affair. Here, where it comes to the State and corporations, questions of privacy and individual rights should not be used even analogically. The state may assert ‘secrecy’ but the state has no ‘right of privacy’. Secrecy is an instrumental concept relating to questions of risk. Corporations may assert ‘confidentiality’ but this is a question of law and custom relating to the regulation of the economy, not to ‘rights’.

Privacy is a right that can only be attached to (usually) human beings in their unofficial thoughts, activities and existence. And the question of forgetting is really a spatio-temporal extension of the concept of privacy necessary in an information society. Because the nature of information and communication has changed, privacy has to be considered over space and through time in a way that was not really necessary (or at least not for so many people so much of the time) previously.

This is where Google’s position comes back into play. Its insistence on neutrality is premised on a libertarian notion of information (described by Erik Davis some time ago as a kind of gnostic American macho libertarianism that pervades US thinking on the Internet). But if this is ‘freedom of information’ as usually understood in democratic societies, it does have limits and an extreme political interpretation of such freedom cannot apply. Should Google therefore abandon the pretence of neutrality and play a role in helping ‘us’ forget things that are untrue, hurtful and private to individuals?

The alternative is challenging: the idea that not acting is a morally ‘neutral’ position is clearly incorrect because it presages a new global norm of information flow presaged on not forgetting, and on the collapse of different jurisdictional norms of privacy. In this world, whilst privacy may not be dead, the law can no longer be relied on to enforce it and other methods from simple personal data management, to more ‘outlaw’ technological means of enforcement will increasingly be the standard for those who wish to maintain privacy. This suggests that money and/or technical expertise will be the things that will allow one to be forgotten, and those without either will be unable to have meaningful privacy except insofar as one is uninteresting or unnoticed.

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