The culture secretary, Sajid Javid, used his speech to the Society of Editors conference on Tuesday to spread misinformation – highly damaging misinformation – both about the importance of privacy generally and about the sadly mislabelled “right to be forgotten” in particular.
In the present age, privacy is becoming more important, not less – and if this speech is in any way indicative of the approach to privacy that we’d see in a Conservative British bill of rights then we should all be deeply concerned.
Looking at the “right to be forgotten” in particular, Javid’s speech seems to fundamentally misunderstand both the ruling in the now infamousGoogle Spain case and the way that Google has reacted to it.
The case, which has very little to do with journalism, involved a Spanish man who found that old stories from 1998 about a property auction to settle social security debts were appearing when people searched for his name. Not a criminal. Not a terrorist. An ordinary businessman who found these stories were interfering with his business.
The ruling was clear that it could only relate to old information that was no longer relevant – and specifically not to public figures or to stories where the public interest was involved. What’s more, the stories were not to disappear from the internet – nor even from search, except for searches under the particular name. It isn’t about a right to be forgotten so much as a right to make certain information less prominent: more of a right to obscurity. The original stories would not be touched – and could be found with anything other than a direct search under the name – so nothing is being forgotten, and the past is not being erased.
The ruling in Google Spain is not in any real sense a threat to journalists, and certainly not a threat of the scale of the use of the anti-crime and terrorism law, Ripa, to intercept journalists’ communications with sources. Google has built a system to implement the ruling, and has, as Javid notes, received a large number of requests for delisting – as of this morning, for a total of 558,662 URLs – and 41.7% of those URLs had been delisted.
This, however, does not mean that these are terrorists and criminals getting their past deeds erased. Quite the opposite. If Javid had readGoogle’s transparency report, he would have seen something very different. The pages being delisted are not stories in newspapers – they’re primarily social media pages. The number one site is Facebook, the number two is profileengine.com – a site that archives old social media profiles, the number three is groups.google.com.
Newspapers do not appear in the top 10 – indeed, the figures for newspapers are minuscule, barely in the 100s. What’s more, the examples given by Google show that where crime is concerned, URLs are not delisted.
I don’t know where Javid got his idea that it is criminals and terrorists who are using the right – it certainly isn’t borne out by the facts. The right to be forgotten has been used, as it was intended, by ordinary people to obscure irrelevant facts that might impact on their job prospects and so forth. Something positive, not something negative.
We are all too familiar with the invocation of the threat of terrorism by government representatives to justify such things as surveillance, laws against extremism and so forth, but to hear it suggested that terrorists are using the right to be forgotten is more than absurd.
When Javid goes on to suggest that Article 8 of the ECHR has somehow gone too far, it is hard not to sigh, when Theresa May is proudly pushing for a return of the snooper’s charter – exactly the kind of arbitrary intrusion into people’s private lives that totalitarian regimes that Javid mentions would have loved to have.
Article 8 isn’t just about protecting the sex lives of the rich and famous – indeed it often fails to do so, as Rio Ferdinand and John Terry among others have found to their cost – but about protecting us all from threats that are all too real.
In this age, those threats are multifaceted and complex, from governments, from corporations, and yes, at times, from the press – and they need protecting and cherishing. With the new head of GCHQ andthe commissioner of the Metropolitan police both making anti-privacy speeches in the last two weeks, Javid’s misleading addition should make us very concerned.
© Guardian News & Media Ltd
This post originally appeared on the Guardian, Comment is Free, and is reproduced with permission and thanks.