‘Right to be forgotten’ — Europe’s censorship overreachOp-Ed
In the San Francisco Chronicle:
Too often of late I’m reminded of George Orwell’s novel “1984.” Inside the Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith works each day erasing history. Smith’s job is to carefully delete people and events from newspaper articles that are not to Big Brother’s liking.
The state-sponsored censorship Orwell imagined more than half a century ago did not disappear with the Berlin Wall. It happens today on a larger scale than ever in China, Russia, Iran and other countries where government-sponsored “trolls” scrub the Internet of inconvenient events, such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre and popular protests in Hong Kong, Moscow and Tehran.
Disturbingly, it’s not only repressive regimes that are promoting online censorship. If Orwell were alive today, what would this British author, who early on warned of the evil of the totalitarianism, make of recent actions by our European allies? A troubling legal movement named the “right to be forgotten” has been gathering steam over the past year, spurred by a May 2014 decision by Europe’s highest court.
This so-called “right” gives Europeans the legal ability to demand that Internet search engines, including Google, Bing and Yahoo, remove links to news articles about themselves that they do not like — deleting history in cyber form.
Of course, there are many instances in which online material is justifiably taken down. Search engines routinely remove all manner of illegal material, including child pornography and copyright infringements. In those cases, there are and should be criteria and processes in place.
But under the European court’s ruling, it does not even matter whether the news articles in question are factual; search engines can be forced to remove links to web pages that fit vague descriptions such as “no longer relevant” or “inadequate.”
Who gets to judge whether links to news articles exist in Europe? It’s left to the search engines, and ultimately the European courts. Since the ruling, Google alone already has reviewed almost 1 million links and removed hundreds of thousands.
It gets worse. On June 12, France’s data-protection regulator ordered Google to expand the so-called “right to be forgotten” to all its search engines, worldwide. This means that Europeans will get to decide what news articles you and I and every person around the world can find. The French regulator is not alone in its chilling view. EU data-protection chiefs have also urged the global removal of links. Not surprisingly, in Putin’s Russia there is a bill to impose an even more sweeping version of this so-called “right.”
Such vast censorship would stagger even George Orwell.
I urge you to join me in advocating for freedom of expression and against censorship. We must also press the Obama administration to include Internet freedom in trade talks, especially the ongoing negotiations with the European Union.
If we make our voices heard, we can’t “be forgotten.” Yet if we continue down the slippery slope of censorship, I fear that — like Orwell’s Winston Smith — we too will soon learn to love Big Brother. Let’s stop this dangerous trend before it’s too late.
U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, R-Fullerton (Orange County), is the chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.
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