The European Court of Justice ruled against Google this week in upholding an individual’s legal right to be forgotten. That is, while newspapers and most online sites will retain the right to publish information about me (and anyone else living in the European Union), I can now petition Google to remove its links to such sites so that they will no longer appear in search results for my name. The ruling has a good deal of support here in Europe, but Google, Wikipedia and newspapers across the Atlantic are crying censorship.
I personally don’t plan on making such a request any time soon, but I am disappointed that both the ruling and Google’s opposition to it fail to distinguish between public figures and private citizens. Under U.S. law, public figures are defined as those involved in public affairs (politicians, officials, etc.); those who actively seek public attention in order to influence the discourse of one or more issues (activists, pundits, outspoken celebrities or entrepreneurs); and those involved in issues of public interest whether or not they seek attention (criminals, all celebrities ever, spouses and relatives of politicians and celebrities). Public discourse benefits from search engines being able to produce a comprehensive collection of resources about public figures. Yes, this will always result in a plethora of worthless vitriol, but as unfortunate as this is, public figures must respect everyone’s right to hold and express free opinions about them, whether someone thinks that George W. Bush is a fascist or that Jeff Bezos is a fascist. But I believe private citizens deserve greater protection.
While we can all control what we publish about ourselves on the Internet, we cannot control what other people publish about us. Photos often require our permission, outright lies can be punished by slander laws, and children are also heavily protected from exposure by anyone other than their parents. But private citizens usually have fewer resources for combating defamation and slander. And there are no laws against a friend of a friend outing you as gay on their blog or blabbing about your medical history on Tumblr.
While it may be crucial for certain people – for example, weapons retailers or nursery school employers – to know if you have a history of mental illness, such information is otherwise considered strictly confidential by law. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 imposed heavy punishments for any medical professional who breached doctor-patient confidentiality at the height of the AIDS crisis. But in the Age of Google, any tangential acquaintance of yours with a blog and a tendency toward loudmouthery can tell the world about any diseases you may have. Google is fighting for their right to include such gossip in the piecemeal biography that is their search results for your name, available to pretty much everyone on earth.
Particularly in the case of medical minorities, even those bloggers with the best intentions can be atrociously revealing. Most of us know the embarrassment of our parents posting our baby pictures to Facebook, but in my research for issues of disability, I’ve come across countless parents posting public confessionals like:
My daughter was heart-broken to learn today that she’s the infertile one!
My husband wanted me to put her up for adoption because he was just too ashamed.
I wonder if anyone could ever love him looking the way he does.
Any parent facing terrifying conditions or social adversity with their child deserves a place to vent their deepest fears. But there’s a difference between opening up in a counseling session and turning the Internet into your therapy couch. Discussing such fears in books and documentaries can contribute to the greater debate on disability, especially when it leads to examining what exactly instills such fears in parents. And too much parental openness is certainly preferable to the widespread shame of previous centuries that led so many to abandon their disabled children. But disabled children will grow up someday and may not want their parents’ interviews following them wherever they go. What young adult wants their friends or employers or potential lovers accessing statements like those above by merely entering their name into the search field of the world’s most popular website?
And while parents may readily take down such comments at upon request, what about acquaintances who gossip about you online? (Remember the Mark Zuckerberg character blogging about his ex’s bra size in The Social Network?) I’ve dealt with friends of friends trashing my medical experiences online by writing my own blog entries about the incident and the issues it raised, but I don’t believe everyone should be required to. Responding to a breach of privacy not by defending yourself but by simply removing yourself from the grid should be the right of any private citizen who’s ever been humiliated for personal information that truly affects no one but their closest friends and family. One of the very foundations of bigotry is the widespread belief that freaky people owe it to the world to answer any question we have about their lives.
My favorite aspect of the Court ruling is the very thing Jimmy Wales bemoans: “A very strict reading of the law leads to this very bizarre conclusion that a newspaper can publish information and yet Google can’t link to it – it makes no sense at all,” said the Wikipedia founder. It makes sense in that, by untangling your company’s website from your high school’s website, the new ruling endows us with the ability to compartmentalize. This ability—to separate your work life from your social life, or your medical condition from your love life when you have no intention of becoming a public figure—seems like a right well worth protecting.
Sherri G. Morris writes of the time, back in the Internet 1.0, when she had met a great guy through her local chapter of Mensa. After a few dates, he googled her name and immediately discovered she belonged to a support group for people with intersex conditions. He and Morris eventually married, but there are undoubtedly many members of minority support groups who would prefer to restrict the fact of their membership to visitors of the group’s homepage. And, when it comes to private citizens, I’m not convinced such a restriction would qualify as censorship.
To compartmentalize, to reveal certain information about yourself at your own pace, is something which we all value in our lives, and which Google has been eroding with its every update. Until now.