May 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

COLUMN

Should we have 'right to be forgotten'?

After decades of covering or commenting on an endless parade of self-promoting celebrities and ambitious wannabes, I was startled to hear that the European Union’s highest court has declared a “right to be forgotten.”

That’s the reason that European Court of Justice in Luxembourg has given for ruling that Google must, in some cases, agree to delete photos, stories and legal records that users find embarrassing.

I’m not surprised that people would want to remove embarrassing stuff about themselves from Facebook and other webpages that Google’s search engines turn up. The Internet never forgets, even when you want it to.

What surprises me is the court’s reasoning. In a ruling that raises more questions than it answers, the court agreed to support part of a complaint filed by Mario Costeja Gonzalez against a Spanish newspaper that ran a brief factual news item article in 1998 about his auctioning his house to pay debts. He wanted the story removed from the newspaper and Google’s search engine.

The court surprised many by dropping the complaint against the newspaper but upholding Gonzalez’ request to have Google to remove the item from its search results.

A person should be able to demand that a search engine remove links to data that “may be prejudicial to him or that he wishes it to be forgotten after a certain time,” the court ruled.

In this era of self-promoting tweeters, social networkers and do-it-yourself media mini-moguls, talk about a “right to be forgotten” sounds almost treasonous to American ears. But it’s old news to Europeans. As George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen explained in a February 2012 Stanford Law Review article, its “intellectual roots” can be found in French law, which allows a convicted criminal who has served his time to object under his “right of oblivion” to the publication of facts about his conviction and punishment.

Has somebody posted something about you on the Internet that you wish was not there? Consider moving to Europe. Nothing like the “right to be forgotten” is likely to happen here. Americans — to our credit, in my view — give greater value to the public’s right to know.

Yet since any pinch on the Web in one country is soon felt around the world, some legal experts like Rosen warn that the “right to be forgotten” poses a threat to Internet freedom as we have known it.

Google, for example is an American company that dominates 90 percent of Europe’s search market. So far, the European court’s ruling has triggered hundreds of requests from Europeans to have details about themselves “forgotten” by Google’s searches.

They include, according to the BBC, an ex-politician seeking re-election who wants removal of links to an article about his behavior in office. Another British man seeks removal of links to information about his conviction for possessing child pornography. A doctor requests the removal of links to negative reviews from his patients.

Judging by those descriptions, the requests to be “forgotten” may well include a number of people whom the public would prefer to remember.

Even so, there are Americans who would like to have something like a “right to be forgotten.” In an eloquent defense of the high court’s stance, University of Chicago Law Prof. Eric Posner argues in Slate that U.S. law should do more to protect our privacy through “the type of balancing” endorsed by the European Court of Justice.

“Privacy allows us to experiment, make mistakes, and start afresh if we mess up,” Posner writes. “It is this potential for rehabilitation, for second chances, that is under assault from Google.”

Fair enough. In the U.S., we may see some reforms, short of a “right to be forgotten,” that don’t offend free speech or the First Amendment. Class action suits, for example, have been filed in at least three states — California, Florida and Ohio — against websites that post arrest mug shot photos and charge extortion-like fees to have the photos taken down, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Abuses like that should be curbed. But as a rule, freedom of expression works best on the Web. Once you turn censors loose, they seldom know when to stop.

Clarence Page writes for The Chicago Tribune.