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Google's Eric Schmidt Is Wrong About Our "Right to Know"

Schmidt's response to an EU court ruling on people's online right to be "forgotten" reflects his dangerous stance on transparency.

by Natasha Lennard
May 15 2014, 9:35pm

Photo by Gisela Giardino

In response to Tuesday's EU high court ruling demanding that Google respect requests from European users to remove certain search results relating to themselves, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has again shown his true colors. The decision upheld online users' right to be "forgotten" — to have some control over what outdated and potentially false information is searchable. Predictably, Google has disavowed the EU ruling, which would certainly create a lot of extra work for the tech giant, now forced to respect the contours of Europe's more robust privacy protections.

"A simple way of understanding what happened here is that you have a collision between a right to be forgotten and a right to know," Schmidt said in response to the ruling. "From Google’s perspective, that’s a balance. Google believes, having looked at the decision which is binding, that the balance that was struck was wrong.”

This is a perfect example of Schmidt and his ethic of what I've long called "Google transparency." It aligns perfectly with his 2009 comment that, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Claims to transparency and the "right to know" play well as platitudes, but perform a dangerous rhetorical act in the age of mass surveillance — and display a profound misunderstanding of what the EU court rightly recognized: Namely, that it is not an immutable virtue that everything be "known."

Schmidt's idea of "right to know" essentially amounts to Google maintaining a cyberuniverse whose denizens are always-already watchable and trackable. It goes hand in hand with the post-9/11 paranoid national security state's mode of information gathering; NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake called it the government's "hoarding complex," reflected in NSA programs like PRISM, which operate using a dragnet to indiscriminately sweep up communications. Despite Google's face-saving protestations in response to NSA leaks over recent months, it seems evident that such a world of what one might call "total information" is not a problem for Schmidt.

A highly paid Silicon Valley engineer may Instagram his deviance at Burning Man with abandon. But others don't necessarily have that privilege.

But it should be a problem for the rest of us. First, there's the issue of asymmetry. Schmidt may argue for the "right to know" as a right accorded everyone equally, but that's misleading at best. It is tech giants like Google and Facebook, and their intractable government partnerships, that maintain a monopoly on knowledge. Who gets access to our personal information and communications, and how information about individuals online gets prioritized and maintained, is entirely imbalanced. Google maintains a "right to know" inaccessible to most of its users.

Second, there is a naive privilege underpinning Schmidt's attitude. The dangerous Google ethic forgets that not every individual is afforded the opportunity to make the details of their life, personal records, preferences, and histories available for public consumption without consequence. A highly paid Silicon Valley engineer may freely Instagram his deviance at Burning Man with abandon. But illegal immigrants, sex workers, and felons — to name just a few marginalized communities — don't necessarily have that privilege. Schmidt's "right to know" argument blithely ignores the fact that, for many individuals, the ability to keep certain information private and unsearchable is a necessary means to navigate a world of inequalities.

Schmidt is wrong: In the balance between the right to be forgotten and the right to know, the former is in desperate need of greater defense.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Silicon Valley
Eric Schmidt