The European Court of Justice this week declared “a right to be forgotten,” basing its decision on an EU privacy directive. Consequently, in certain circumstances, Google and other internet providers have had to delete unflattering information about people. In the European court case, a Spanish businessman did not want others to read old notices showing that he had once been delinquent in his debts.
While the scope of this decision will be debated, it did not take long for some to take advantage of it. First in line were a pedophile who wanted to expunge information about his crimes and a politician who did not want future voters to know about his embarrassing behavior. These supplicants may be foolish: the press reports are likely to remind everyone of their malefactions, even if the reports, too, can be scrubbed from the internet. But if the court’s holding stands and it not reversed in subsequent European wide legislation, the routine excise of damaging information will happen without comment, even if the information is true.
The decision is interesting on a variety of dimensions. First, it reminds us directly that the so-called right to privacy in this context is inseparable from the right of an individual to present a misleading image to the world. That a neighbor is pedophile, that a politician is a boor, or even that a businessman was once a deadbeat are all potentially important bits of information.