In one of the first major legislative challenges to Google's global empire of privacy abrogations, the highest court in the European Union ruled today that Google must respect requests from users to have their personal data, which is generated by its search engine, deleted. Individuals, the court determined, have a right to be "forgotten."
While tech giants and US spy agencies have built a sprawling kingdom of tracked and surveyed subjects, this decision is an important first siege in the battle for what the European court significantly called "erasure." With a caveat included for information deemed of significant public interest, the European ruling enables any citizen of the EU to demand that content relating to that person linked to by Google's search engine be removed. The demands must be met if sufficient time has elapsed since the content's publication, if the exemption for public interest is not met, or if the linked content contains falsehoods about an individual.
The case began with a complaint in 2009 from attorney Mario Costeja, who objected that entering his name in Google’s search engine led to legal notices dating back to 1998 in an online version of a Spanish newspaper detailing his debts and foreclosure — issues he had since resolved.
Google has naturally reacted with disappointment to the ruling, not least because it will force the global tech giant to end a practice of treating online content as transcendental, apart from the nuances of different nations' laws and value systems. The tech leviathan must now do the work to respond to Europe's more robust privacy pushes.
We seemingly leave the past behind us with the possibility of self-renewal and reformation. But online, many sets of online selves coexist contemporaneously and all at once.
There is something near-mythic about the European ruling and its defense of disappearance, historical sublimation, and erasure. Erasure is a significant term here — it also applies to an artistic, literary, and theoretical process that sees the removal or crossing-out of certain text or images to create new possible interpretations. Erasure is often a challenge to a text or a statement's assumed form or original purpose.
Online lives are both accumulative and static. We seemingly leave the past behind us with the possibility of self-renewal and reformation. But online, many sets of online selves coexist contemporaneously and all at once. It is the metaphysics of internet existence that mean an individual can exist as both hero and villain, dead and alive, all at once. Online content about a person produces a Schrödinger's Cat situation in which a purported "truth" about an individual is spat out by the vagaries of a search algorithm, but potentially contradictory "truths" about an individual already exist as searchable and could equally be produced.
The European decision gives some agency to EU citizens over the set of online selves that get to exist, but let's not get too carried away with the implications. The reality is that Google will push back on the application of these rules. The bar for removing personal content will likely be set high, paired with bureaucratic hoops and lofty burdens of proof.
One hopes the ruling will be galvanizing beyond the EU. It signals a push to undo an asymmetry of power over knowledge and information — indeed, over the very contours of the cyberspace in which we live. Who and how we get to be online is often out of our hands. The corporate-government nexus determines how we can live and communicate online, watched over by machines of corporate and political interest.
The EU ruling is a reminder to fight for the ability to redress this power asymmetry — a far cry as it is from those old utopian dreams of the internet producing liberated, non-hierarchical networked societies. It is a reminder to challenge the current power imbalances of online knowledge production. Acted upon, the decision is a reminder to become the masters of our own online histories and destinies.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard
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