November 12, 2014

Down the Memory Hole

In 1998, real estate belonging to Mario Costeja Lopez, in Spain, was seized by local authorities and auctioned off to pay debts he owed.  Notice of the auction went out in the local newspaper, and later on its web site.

Skip to this past summer, when a lawsuit filed by Lopez came to an end at the European Court of Justice (sort of a Supreme Court for Europe).  Staggeringly, the court partly agreed with Lopez's requests that the newspaper remove the notice from its archive and Google remove links to it from its search results.  The court didn't make the paper take the notice down, but did order Google to kill the links.  This is what's know as the "right to be forgotten."

As you might expect, Lopez's triumph has led to fairly disparate opinions on either side of the Atlantic:
Q: But this ruling goes completely against freedom of information - that anything that's public should be recorded and kept.
A: That's certainly how lots of American commentators have seen it. There's a definite cultural split in peoples' attitudes to this ruling. Journalism professor and commentator Jeff Jarvis (of City University, New York) called it 'a blow against free speech' - but was then chided by Gerd Leonhard, from Basel in Switzerland: ''Everything that happens must be known' - is that what you are proposing? I think EU decision on Google is a suitable first step.'
It's worth noting here that the European conception of what "privacy" means is fundamentally different than it is in the United States.  We tend to think of privacy as dealing with limits on the government and generally enforcing what Louis Brandeis called the "right to be let alone."  Europeans, on the other hand, put much more importance on being able to conceal parts of your own past from others - to emphasize being able to control your own personal narrative (so to speak).

The problem with that, of course, is that you're most likely to want to keep from view the very kind of information you want others not to know.  At the extreme, you probably don't want people to know about a prior conviction for a crime or maybe even a prior marriage.  More mundane worries may include things like poor job performance, embarrassing Facebook status/pictures, or, in cases like Lopez, financial insolvency.  All of that, of course, may be relevant information to others.

Regardless of the merits of either approach, the right to be forgotten is leading to some absurd requests.  Like the one recently received by The Washington Post (via) from a pianist named Dejan Lazic.

Lazic, from Croatia, gave a concert in Washington in 2010 at which the Post's music critic was not particularly impressed.  It referred to a prior work of Lazic's as "attention-getting, large scale and a little empty" and concluded that his recital "was unfortunately more of the same."  It wasn't a pan - Lazic was described as "sensitive" and "profoundly gifted" - but it was, at times, pretty barbed (in Lazic's hands a "scherzo became cartoon-like").

So, it's a less than glowing review.  But that's the price you pay for being an artist, right?  People get to say whether they like your stuff or not, or, more broadly, whether you're "good" and you don't get a lot of say on the matter.  Writers, I know, are encouraged to never engage with critics - it's a battle you just can't win.  Unless the review gets something factually wrong, you shrug it off and move on.

Not Lazic.  Armed with the "right to be forgotten," he has asked the Post to take the review down.  As he explains:
'To wish for such an article to be removed from the internet has absolutely nothing to do with censorship or with closing down our access to information,' Lazic explained in a follow-up e-mail to The Post. Instead, he argued, it has to do with control of one’s personal image — control of, as he puts it, 'the truth.'
The Post is not backing down, partly because even the right recognized in Europe doesn't extend to the actual newspaper stories, only the links.  But it also recognizes that there are broader issues, more meta ones, at stake.  Like which version of the "truth" gets to be in the permanent record:
Whose truth is right: the composer’s or the critic’s? And more critically, who gets to decide?
It’s a question that goes far beyond law or ethics, frankly — it’s also baldly metaphysical, a struggle with the very concept of reality and its determinants. Lazic (and to some extent, the European court) seem to believe that the individual has the power to determine what is true about himself, as mediated by the search engines that process his complaints.
Growing up with the First Amendment, I would say that the decision about where the truth lies belongs to neither the performer or the critic, but to everyone else.  I do think I have a right to know that Lazic is, in the opinion of some, a bombastic player who overperforms.  Heck, I may like such things!  Why should I only have the word of the performer to go on before I lay out cash for a ticket or a CD?  That would reduce us to a world of very special people who are brilliant at what they do.  Even as a writer, I wouldn't want that.

There is a considerable irony in all this.  Were it not for his successful court case, I would have never heard of Mario Costeja Lopez or his financial problems.  The same is true for Dejan Lazic and his penchant for pianistic bombast.  More perfect examples of the Streisand Effect would be hard to find.  Which gives me some hope that the right to be forgotten will, someday, make its own way down the memory hole.

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