Sounds lovely. Yet a problem looms -- these proposed rights of free expression and open Internet run counter to trends that have been building within Europe for years. Many countries there welcome an individual's right to such "content removal requests." The continent, from Spain to France to the overarching European Union itself, has repeatedly advocated and emphasized "a right to be forgotten," a right for Internet users to eliminate references to themselves online as they choose. Individuals should, the right suggests, be able to control their digital identity and remove content that may be embarrassing, outdated or invasive. I wrote about Europe's radically different view of Internet privacy for The Atlantic in February, back when Spain's data protection agency had requested Google to remove 90 links and been denied. In its refusal, the U.S.-based search engine justified its decision by referring to society's vital need for objective Internet search.
In my earlier piece, I took a broader view, looking back decades to understand how two views of privacy could develop in this way. Scholarship pointed to America's First Amendment principles contrasted against Europe's rights of personality as well as an enshrined culture of privacy that never legally had the same protections in the United States. The two cultures had developed for years and a sharp divide emerged as the two countries developed their presences online. The European Union announced intentions to legislate the principles of a "right to be forgotten" in November of 2010 and confirmed these goals this past March. These new laws would allow Europeans to sue transnational Web giants like Facebook and Google into submission to European standards of privacy. Websites like YouTube and Google Maps ran up against the continent's courts. As the EU justice commissioner noted in her March speech: "A U.S.-based social network company that has millions of active users in Europe needs to comply with EU rules."
Except the EU's desired rules and the EU sense of privacy also happens to embody a concept that, for many people, is synonymous with censorship. For Internet users to control their own data, others' freedom of expression would inevitably be limited -- newspapers, bloggers, social media users and more. People's ability to discuss and feature information about anyone beyond themselves could be significantly hemmed in by these laws.
More critically, these censoring tendencies collapse under the language of the UN's new declaration.
The new UN report explicitly discusses the problems of limiting free expression on account of privacy concerns. It points to the 2010 case of an Italian court that convicted three Google executives for allowing a controversial video to be briefly posted on YouTube. "Holding intermediaries liable for the content disseminated or created by their users severely undermines" open rights of expression, the report noted. Pursuing intermediary Web entities like YouTube and Google "leads to self-protective and over-broad private censorship, often without transparency and the due process of the law."