Among the many things I didn’t get a chance to write about thanks to the absolute sucktitude of 2014 is the absolute sucktitude of the European Union’s right to be forgotten ruling. If you don’t know what that is, here’s a nice explainer for you.
But thanks to classical pianist Dejan Lazic, I won’t have to write much of that post myself. His words in support of right to be forgotten as he worked to have what he felt was an unfavourable review of one of his concerts disappeared from the public record pretty much make the case for why it’s awful and we should all be frightened of and completely against what it represents. Whether you’re a journalist, a blogger or even a regular guy who wants a bit of truth in his Google, the possibilities for where this sort of thing could lead us are more than a little scary.
“To wish for such an article to be removed from the internet has absolutely nothing to do with censorship or with closing down our access to information,” Lazic explained in a follow-up e-mail to The Post. Instead, he argued, it has to do with control of one’s personal image — control of, as he puts it, “the truth.”
We ought to live in a world, Lazic argues, where everyone — not only artists and performers but also politicians and public officials — should be able to edit the record according to their personal opinions and tastes. (“Politicians are people just like you and me,” he explains.) This is all in pursuit of some higher, objective truth.
Of course, there are two truths in this situation, as there are two or more truths in most.
In Lazic’s version, Midgette mischaracterized his 2010 performance at the Kennedy Center and slandered him as a performer, out of ignorance or malice. (“Defamatory, mean-spirited, opinionated, one-sided, offensive [and] simply irrelevant for the arts,” is how he put it.)
In Midgette’s version, Lazic’s performance wasn’t dreadful, but it didn’t live up to what she expected of a performer with, to quote the review, such “prodigious gifts.” So she gave him a tepid review, peppered with references to Lazic’s achievements. Not eviscerating. Not a “slam.” But a criticism, sure.
Whose truth is right: the composer’s or the critic’s? And more critically, who gets to decide?
It’s a question that goes far beyond law or ethics, frankly — it’s also baldly metaphysical, a struggle with the very concept of reality and its determinants. Lazic (and to some extent, the European court) seem to believe that the individual has the power to determine what is true about himself, as mediated by the search engines that process his complaints.
Accordingly, in the three months after the “right to be forgotten” ruling went into effect, Google approved 53 percent of take-down requests on first application, and an additional 15 percent upon further review.
Those removals included articles from the Guardian about a former Scottish soccer referee who lied about granting a penalty kick, a BBC article that discussed a Merrill Lynch banker’s role in the financial crisis, and a report in the Daily Mail about an airline that had been accused of racism by a Muslim job applicant. And they proceeded despite the fact that, as Google complained in a filing to regulators, “in many cases we lack the larger factual context for a request, without which it is difficult to balance competing interests.”
Of course, all that balancing and fact-gathering is generally outsourced to journalists. Now, at least in Europe, there’s a sense that personally involved individuals are somehow furthest from bias, somehow closest the truth.
A notion which, of course, any reasonable person should know is complete garbage. Our world’s information being censored or otherwise manipulated by the self-interested has never worked toward the betterment of our world, and it never will. If rulings such as right to be forgotten are allowed to stand and spread, I fear we’re headed for a future filled with nothing but endless cycles of do harm, whitewash, repeat. It puts all of the power back into the hands of those whom the internet was supposed to be taking it from. Will there be a legitimate use for it? Perhaps, depending on how conservative your definition of legitimate is( mine makes it damn near impossible unless something is patently false). But if you don’t think the courts are just making it easier for everything from the shady business dealings of somebody local to political scandals at the highest levels to go unchecked and unchallenged, you’re fooling yourself.