The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire afin
d'être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.

The Rhetoric of the Right to be Forgotten

I have been thinking recently about Europe’s ongoing experiment so-called “Right to be Forgotten” (or, as Miquel Peguera calls it, the “Right to be Delisted”). Under the European Court of Justice’s opinion in the Google Spain case, search engines must remove links to information that is “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant” to a search for a person’s name. Reaction to the decision on this side of the Atlantic has generally not been kind. Here are three common types of arguments against it:

  • “Haven’t you heard of the Streisand Effect?” Trying to censor information online perversely calls attention to it. Here, Google notifies websites of right-to-be-delisted requests; as a result, news sites write stories about their old stories that have been delisted, and search engines link to those new stories.

  • “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” Trying to remove information from the web is futile, because it will always pop up again somewhere else. Here, that “somewhere else” includes the sites where the original information was posted and search engines’ non-European sites.

  • “Don’t break the Internet.” Deleting links jeopardizes the global openness that makes the Internet what it is, undermining innovation, community, and free expression around the world. Here, the right to be delisted threatens Internet engines, a spectacularly valuable technology.

Don’t dwell on whether these arguments are right or wrong. Instead, take a moment to note that they are identical – identical – to the three types of rhetoric Albert O. Hirschman identified as characteristic of reactionary conservatism::

According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy. The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to “make a dent.” Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment.