Forgettable You (or “why you should care about Mario Gonzalez”)

Most Americans would be outraged by a law requiring that certain library books be taken off the shelves and burned. How, then, would those same Americans react to a law that said: “The books can stay on the shelves, but destroy their index cards”?

That, many argue, is what Europe’s highest legal authority, the Court of Justice in Luxembourg, said to Google on May 13, 2014. The facts are simple enough. In 1998 a lawyer named Mario Costeja González lost his house in Spain; it was auctioned to pay his social security debts. At the time a newspaper, La Vanguardia, ran a brief story on it. The story was factually accurate. Twelve (12) years later, in 2010, González lodged a complaint with the Spanish Data Protection Agency against the newspaper and against Google because he felt it unfair that the article about the auction came up in a recent Google search. González complained that now, 12 years after the fact, the story is no longer relevant to his life and that having it show up in an Internet search improperly and unfairly damages his reputation and violates his privacy rights.

In America, such a complaint would likely be summarily dismissed. This country has a passionate belief in the First Amendment right to free speech. To its credit, the Spanish Data Protection Agency dismissed Mr. González’s complaint against the newspaper, but in a shocking and unprecedented move the Agency upheld the complaint against Google, and ruled that the link to the article must be removed from the search engine. Keep in mind that the Court did not order the article itself to be removed from the Internet, only that the search engine’s link to the article be removed. Sort of like removing the index card, but leaving the book buried in the stacks somewhere, unlikely to be seen again.

Google appealed this decision to the Court of Justice in Luxembourg, where the decision of the Spanish Data Protection Agency was upheld.

Do you need to care about this case? This decision, after all, was made under a specific European law, and decided by a European Court. Here are some considerations that might make you want to sit up and take notice:

1. Google has not yet reported how it will respond to this ruling, but it may have to remove all links to the offending article in United States, Europe and worldwide.

2. The law in question permits any person to ask that links to personal information about them be removed from any and all search engines. Google and other search engines now face a potential avalanche of these so-called “takedown” requests. One possible response: comply with every such request because of the otherwise daunting and possibly insurmountable task of determining, for each takedown request, whether compliance is required under the European law. Imagine the information that could become essentially unavailable ranging from the embarrassing peccadillos of youth to serious crimes and misdemeanors. At what point is a person’s right to privacy outweighed by the public’s right to know?

3. Can this happen in America? Some commentators, such as Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales, maintain that our First Amendment protections make that impossible. History has taught us, however, never to say never. The law and the courts are a never-ending source of surprise, amazement and disappointment. Who, for example, could now imagine our Supreme Court making the decision that it once made when the Court ruled that a slave named Dred Scott was personal property, and that African Americans were not, and could not become, citizens of the United States?

This case presages a coming battle that is partly set in the cultural and philosophical chasm between European and American concepts of freedom: the American view that freedom of speech trumps everything, and the European view that each person should have some control over what is known about them.


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