Twelve years after the global economic downturn cost Mario Costeja González his business property, his credit rating and his financial reputation, he had paid off his debts and begun to rebuild his business. The biggest obstacle: internet searches on his name immediately turned up his disastrous past. Striving to mend his reputation, he sued to have the information removed. And in 2012, once Case C-131-12 had gone all the way up to the European Court of Justice, he won.
Two and a half years later, “the right to be forgotten” (aka “the right to be delisted” or “right to erasure”) allows EU citizens to fill out a simple online form requesting removal of information that is “inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant or excessive.” While public figures performing public duties cannot appeal, anyone else may. In practice, the information itself is not actually deleted, but all the European links leading to that information are taken down so the information cannot be searched. It becomes, in essence, invisible.
For research libraries at any level, restricted access to potentially valuable information is alarming. Unintended but serious repercussions for research have already appeared. For instance, someone who frequently commented on online news pieces asked to have his older comments removed because his philosophy had radically changed. As a result, links to the articles he remarked on also vanished, including an investigative piece about the corrupt CEO of a multinational business. The CEO, still in business, now effectively has a squeaky-clean past, while BBC News Economics Editor Robert Peston, the author of the expose, can no longer point to the pride of his portfolio.
Similarly, disgraced Dutch researcher Diederik Stapel is considering a request to have links to “outdated” information wiped away. If his appeal is granted, potential academic employers could remain unaware of his dismissal from Tilburg University, loss of his Ph. D. and his world-record-setting 58 scholarly paper retractions, all containing falsified or even fictitious data. After all, he says, the first retraction in 2010 was “so long ago.”
Worse, researchers of any age have lost their right to make up their own minds about the validity or relevance of information gathered from European searches. The EU’s request procedure places that responsibility firmly in the hands of the search engine itself—which, in 65.2% of searches worldwide, is Google. And as the New York Times pithily commented, Google is then “left in the awkward position of determining when government requests to censor information universally are legitimate and when it is not. No business should have that power.”
Joyce Johnston teaches at George Mason University and has been writing and speaking on digital intellectual property and virtual instruction for more than 20 years. As a non-librarian, but a proud member of the Virginia Association of School Librarians, she has provided updates on intellectual property at its annual conference for the past 10 years and serves on the Executive Committee for the World Conference on Educational Media and Technology (aka EdMedia).