Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales: 'Right to be forgotten' is censorship

Wales sits on a committee advising Google on dealing with an EU court's ruling that people have the right to be forgotten online.

What happens when you Google your name, and old, embarassing information appears in the results? You could ask the site in question to take it down, but if they say no, there's not much you can do--unless you live in Europe. An EU court recently issued a ruling on the "right to be forgotten," which says that, by request, Google and other search engines should hide links to web pages with "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant," information. You can read more about this in our FAQ.

Following the controversial ruling, Google established an "advisory board" to advise them on how to implement the decision. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is on this board. My Twitter discussion with Jimmy Wales is available via Storify, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions by email as well. These excerpts have been edited for length.

TechHive: Search links can be removed, but not the originating source documents. How then is this censorship?

Jimmy Wales: It absolutely is censorship and no one serious has any doubts about that at all. As a simple test, ask yourself whether this would be possible in the U.S. without a repeal or modification of the First Amendment--it would not.

Google goes to an enormous amount of effort to write software to express editorial judgment about which links are displayed--that's freedom of expression. The links do not come up in random order. We may criticize the results, just as we may criticize the writings of a movie reviewer.

What we may not do, if we are respecting freedom of expression, is use the force of law to suppress a link to content that is legally published and true. It is not appropriate for any government to attempt to force its judgment of what is "relevant" on anyone.

And it is a censorship not just of Google but of the newspapers affected by it. Newspapers print what they think is relevant. In the case the ECJ [Court of Justice of the EU] considered, the newspaper declined to remove the information from their archive. The punishment they are suffering is that it's now very difficult to find the page. For anyone to claim this is not censorship of the newspaper is ludicrous. The primary means by which newspapers distribute their content online is via search engines. This ruling denies them access to those readers--that's censorship plain and simple.

TH: Should an independent agency be tasked with making decisions on which links to remove, or should this be fully tasked to the respective search engines?

JW: The editorial judgment about what links to legally published and truthful content to show in response to a query should be left with absolute discretion to the search engines. Search engines are not an exception to freedom of speech.

Remember, we are not talking about libel here, and we are not talking about illegally posted copyrighted material and we are not talking about child pornography--these are not legal to publish in the first place. This decision does not touch on those issues at all.

TH: Is there a possibility, thanks to this ruling, that wealthier people could unduly influence search results and poor people not?

JW: Of course they can. They can now hire a lawyer to threaten Google with legal action in Europe. Before this, everyone has a similar playing field. Anyone can start a personal blog to rebut or respond to false claims. Things are now much better for the rich (and for con artists) and much worse for everyone eelse.

TH: Should adults ever have the right to have search engine remove links to stories that mention them?

JW: Absolutely not, under no circumstances ever is it OK to use the force of law to suppress truthful speech. The very idea is disgusting and philosophically bankrupt.

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