Last week, a European court ruled that Google had a legal obligation to comply with a Spanish man’s request that certain unflattering online references to him not show up in Google searches. The digital edition of a 1998 newspaper included the notice of his property being auctioned off due to an outstanding welfare debt. The debt has long been since repaid and he convinced the Spanish privacy agency to remove the reference but it was still showing up in Google searches since the web giant refused to amend its search processes. The court has ruled: Google no longer has that option. This case would appear to be one of over 200 cases before the Spanish courts in which individuals are seeking to have the emerging "right to be forgotten" applied to their circumstance. One of the cases reportedly involves a surgeon who is seeking to have a story about a "botched surgery" made inaccessible, presumably due to the fact that the circulation of knowledge was not proving helpful to his business.
While privacy laws applied to information relating to minors, those discharged from bankruptcy, or to protect those who have been the victims are part of almost every legal system, the emerging "right to be forgotten" is a European legal concept that has been gaining traction over the past few decades. Viviane Reding, the EU’s top justice official, is quoted in one report arguing that “data belongs to the individual” and that unless there is a good reason to retain data, “an individual should be empowered by law to request erasure.” Legal scholars note that the European principles regarding human dignity have led to different jurisprudence than in North America, where free speech tends to be a more emphasized consideration. The commentary on last week’s decision predominantly frames the debate as one between the freedom of speech and of privacy.
Balancing these competing legal principles is a noble pursuit, and the hard cases, made more numerous by technology that makes information broadly accessible, is the anvil on which a solution will be hammered out. But the implicit assumptions about human nature and how we live together that give rise to this debate are troubling and sad.
Yes, technology prompts these cases, but so do prevailing attitudes about individual autonomy and a society in which merit is the exclusive way we make decisions about each other. The claim that all information about me somehow belongs to me, and I have the right to decide what you may or may not know about me and my past, reflects a view of human nature that puts all of the emphasis on the individual and very little on the group. Considered against a historic Christian perspective, which viewed the human person as created for relationship with God and neighbour, this seems more like self-idolatry than a recipe for flourishing.
But what of the difficult situations that emerge from less-than-flattering information about me that may exist in the world? There are at least two countervailing principles that have historically been relied on to deal with such circumstances. Truth means that I have the opportunity to ensure the whole story is told. Forgiveness means that there is a shared understanding of our human condition. No one is perfect. Our relationships with God and neighbour are all broken with misdeeds, but life is still worth living because forgiveness is available.
The emerging legal principle seems to be that the “right to be forgotten” is a way of expressing the dignity of the person, by ensuring that misdeeds of the past do not forever shape how they are viewed by others. I would prefer a society in which my dignity comes from who I really am. Rather than hiding from my past, dignity is acknowledging my shortcomings and misdeeds, recognizing that God and my neighbours are able to deal with me as a forgiven person who honestly confronts the challenges of life. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not advocating that we need to volunteer our dirty laundry or not put our best foot forward. But I’m not so worried about my misdeeds that I am depending on winning a game of legal whack-a-mole in order to prevent you from finding out the sins of my past. That notion of dignity seems to be as artificial as the circus setting in which such games are played.
Reading that the courts are granting a “right to be forgotten” prompts more despair than comfort. In my view, being forgiven trumps being forgotten every day of the week, and provides much greater promise for individuals and society.