But today in January of 2012, what the EU is proposing
shouldn't worry proponents of free expression. Reding suggests not a
right based on that case in Spain or cases where German criminals hounded
Wikipedia to erase their traces or where Italians sued Google execs over
offensive videos a user had posted. The name, of course, is the same. Reding still casually refers to "the right to be forgotten," employing the same language she first did in November of 2010 when she announced the EU would consider clarifying it. Yet
the definition of the right to be forgotten has substantially shifted from
what was being discussed a year ago. Back then, the right would have potentially given people the ability to cull any digital reference -- from the public record, journalism, or social networks -- they deemed irrelevant and unflattering; today, the EU specifies that
the data people have a right to remove is, according to Reding, "personal data
[people] have given out themselves." This provision is key. The overhaul insists that Internet users control the data they put online, not the references in media or anywhere else.
"It is clear that the right to be forgotten cannot amount to
a right of the total erasure of history," Reding noted in her Sunday speech. "Neither must the right to be forgotten take precedence over freedom of
expression or freedom of the media."
Bingo. There we hear the reassuring buzzwords. These new European proposals will transform the world's business and
technological landscape but they will not signal an ideological rift in quite
so dramatic a way as last year's legal cases and dialogue implied. They shouldn't
worry proponents of free speech.
The people who should worry are companies
whose profits rely on mined, invasive data abuses. American companies, from Google to Facebook to Amazon, will have to adjust to a user-friendlier European Internet, which at least now will offer one set of rules rather than 27. This overhaul, the first in 17 years, will hopefully reduce the number of conflicted transatlantic court cases we saw in the last half decade. What matters now, more than ever, is the consent of the individual. Google has already made real gestures this year to spread the idea that the company values privacy. The search engine alerts people of a policy change coming March 12 -- "not
the usual yada yada," Google assures -- and celebrates the "five guiding principles" of privacy in a video (these principles explain how Google uses our information
to "make our products even more useful"). Google features a British narrator in this new video who assures us: "We
don't sell user information to other companies."
note at the end of her recent Munich speech recognized the delicate ideological
balancing act the European Union now embarks on. For now, at least, the right
to be forgotten demands corporate transparency with data rather than empowers
the individual to censor. Europe will benefit from a unified set of regulations staked against business interests located in America and operating on U.S. ideological principles.
"According to the Fundamental Rights Charter, the freedom of
expression and the freedom of information are basic rights for the European
citizens. They are directly linked to a free Internet which has thus to be preserved," Reding said. "But those are not the only freedoms. The right of the creator to
the content and fruits of his creation are equally important. This right also
has to be preserved."
Image: Photoshopped version of Flickr/inhisgrace