Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Are you willing to pay for Prepare to be asked before year’s end
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Sept. 24, 2019, 2:23 p.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   September 24, 2019

Even back in 1989, in his initial proposal for what would eventually become the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee knew that he wanted his new platform to be universal — to provide access to all information on the network to anyone on the network. Emphases mine:

We should work toward a universal linked information system, in which generality and portability are more important than fancy graphics techniques and complex extra facilities. The aim would be to allow a place to be found for any information or reference which one felt was important, and a way of finding it afterwards…An important part of this, discussed below, is the integration of a hypertext system with existing data, so as to provide a universal system, and to achieve critical usefulness at an early stage.

That’s the dream! But we’re all aware by now that “the Internet” is no longer a single unitary thing, the same from every browser. The Chinese Internet doesn’t include The New York Times, for instance. The Bangladeshi Internet doesn’t include Al Jazeera. The German Internet doesn’t include neo-Nazi sites. The Belgian Internet doesn’t include The Pirate Bay. The Iranian Internet doesn’t include Twitter.

And so on, and so on. Whether it’s to fight sexual violence, protect the interests of copyright holders, or suppress political dissent — for good reasons or bad — national laws and regulations have rendered the universal platform something less.

One of the biggest fears of those who care about Internet freedom is that those national restrictions could grow into global ones. China can block the Times in Beijing, but it can’t in Boston, thankfully. And a lot of those people breathed a sigh of relief today with a ruling in the European Court of Justice that fell on the side of national boundaries.

At issue was the EU’s long-controversial “right to be forgotten,” which allows European citizens to ask in some cases that links to information about them be removed from search engines, most prominently Google. The appeal of such a removal is obvious; it’s easy to chafe at your online identity to be defined by something embarassing you did years ago that happened to have great SEO. But just as obvious are the risks; you don’t want businesses, war criminals, or politicians being able to selectively edit out the bad things they’ve done.

(Also obvious are the particular interests of news organizations in the matter, given that they are often the publishers of the embarrassing info and generally consider their role to be quasi-permanent keepers of a public record. Though some publishers are changing their minds on that, too.)

At issue in court was a French case from 2015 where regulators had told Google to remove some specific search results about a person. Google did, but only in Europe — not for the rest of the world. The French privacy regulator fined Google for not going global, and Google appealed that fine.

The court today ruled in Google’s favor — stating that, no, “there is no obligation under E.U. law, for a search engine operator…to carry out such a de-referencing on all the versions of its search engine.”

The ruling has a direct impact on the reach of European privacy decisions — but it also sets a standard that one country’s rules about its Internet cannot be imposed on everyone else’s Internet.

That’s important, given that the access points we have to information online — Google, Facebook, Bing I guess? — are global. If a single country was allow to set Google’s global information policy, we could all be at the mercy of the lowest-common denominator. Google and its ilk operate in hundreds of countries, and I wouldn’t want the censors of Myanmar or Syria or Venezuela to have the power to shut down tech companies in country unless they block sites from American and other eyes, too.

Of course, the ruling of a European court is hardly binding on all the world’s authoritarians. If a country wants to block Google from operating within it over an issue like this, it can. But it’s a small victory that those would-be censors now won’t be able to point to Europe and say: See, Europe gets away with censoring Google worldwide. Why can’t we do the same?

Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Are you willing to pay for Prepare to be asked before year’s end
The cable news network plans to launch a new subscription product — details TBD — by the end of 2024. Will Mark Thompson repeat his New York Times success, or is CNN too different a brand to get people spending?
Errol Morris on whether you should be afraid of generative AI in documentaries
“Our task is to get back to the real world, to the extent that it is recoverable.”
In the world’s tech capital, Gazetteer SF is staying off platforms to produce good local journalism
“Thank goodness that the mandate will never be to look what’s getting the most Twitter likes.”