For a preview of the titanic clash we’re about to witness between privacy and free speech on the Internet, consider the case of Virginia Da Cunha. The Argentinean pop star posed for racy pictures, which found their way to the Internet. Then, thinking better of her decision, she sued Google and Yahoo, demanding they take the pictures down. An Argentinean judge, invoking a version of “the right to be forgotten,” sided with Da Cunha, fined Google and Yahoo, and ordered them to delink all sites with racy pictures that included her name. Claiming that removing only selected pictures was too difficult, Yahoo decided to block all sites even referring to Da Cunha from its Argentinean search engine. Today, when you plug the name Virginia Da Cunha into Yahoo Argentina, you get a blank page and a legal notice that the images have been removed by court order.
Soon, citizens around the world may have the ability to selectively delete themselves from the Internet. At the beginning of this year, Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for justice, fundamental rights, and citizenship, proposed codifying a sweeping version of the right to be forgotten in European data-protection law. The proposal is being strenuously resisted by Facebook and by Google, which could be liable for up to 1 percent of its $37.9 billion annual income if it fails to remove photos or other data that people post about themselves and later think better of, even if the data have been broadly shared.