Google scans some 60 trillion Web pages to index information for the hundreds of millions of queries it receives each day. Now, according to the European Union’s highest court, users there have the right to ask Google to forget any bits about them that they would prefer the world not remember.
It’s a provocative approach to a legitimate problem. Still, the best response to this decision may be: Good luck with that, EU.
The ruling involves a Spanish man whose house was auctioned in 1998 to satisfy unpaid debts. He asserted that the issue had been resolved and that Google’s search engine should no longer bring up links to newspaper items mentioning the auction whenever someone looks up his name.
The European Court of Justice agreed. Under current data-protection laws, it said, Europeans already had a right to be forgotten, and consumers could demand that search engines remove links to information that is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant,” except in cases of significant public interest.
This approach threatens free speech. It will place an arbitrary, costly imposition on search-engine companies. And such a sweeping right could potentially deprive the public of useful information.
All that said, this is a clarifying debate. Plenty of ordinary folks who have gone through tough times simply want to move on, without the worst episodes of their lives remaining the top hit in a Google search. In other words, the European public is increasingly alarmed.
Divining a “right to be forgotten” isn’t the smartest way to respond to such alarm. But make no mistake: The alarm is real. Maybe the EU’s grand experiment in protecting privacy will yield lessons for the rest of the world.