I got it mostly wrong in my previous post when I said that people may be sending missives to Google, in order to get links removed from its listings when my name – miljenko williams – is searched. Usefully, the always kindly Paul Bernal tweeted me a number of clarifications, which – as is my wont – simply make me think of more questions.
To summarise what Paul has said to me this evening (please correct me if I am wrong) in two easy-to-understand points:
- Google slaps the phrase “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe. Learn more” at the bottom not only of my search results but Paul’s and almost everyone else’s because – according to its algorithms, listings or other opaque critera – we are not public figures.
- If, for example, you search a famous singer – paul mccartney, say – no such message appears at the bottom of the screen. This is precisely because he is a public figure. Only ordinary people have a right to be forgotten; the paul mccartneys of this world do not (though I did read yesterday that he and other famous people were, as we speak and write, getting Google to rub out Street View images of their mansions various).
So if this is as clear to me as it is to you, why do I find myself asking more questions? Well, judge for yourself – here are those questions I’m asking as a result:
- When is a person not a public figure? I can understand, for the reasons I gave yesterday about my own professional trajectory, why Google would judge me not to be a public figure – but what about someone like Paul Bernal, so involved in and committed to modern digital rights at both a personal and institutional level? I mean, how is it possible Google judges that under the recent EU legislation he still has a right to be forgotten? He has written, spoken, published and debated in so many public spaces that it really begs the question: what do you have to do to become a public figure? What does being a public figure mean? What, in fact, are its criteria actually aiming to define?
- Is there not something quite pernicious in this defining of what a public versus a private figure is? And doesn’t it seem to indicate that for a long time now Google’s been using certain assumptions to define whom people more generally would prefer to find on the web and whom they wouldn’t? Assumptions, I assume, which could be quite questionable for many of us. So what am I saying? That a real downside of Google’s application of EU principles on the right for private figures to be forgotten is that it can be used to reinforce the power the eagerly public have over the rest of us. Sure, it’s important we can regain our privacy if we should want to – but what if the already powerful and politically galvanised, implicated and cleverly controlling look to use, in the future, the related right not to be forgotten (for alongside the right to be forgotten must exist its opposite) to push ordinary people out of public spaces all over again – returning, as a result, the body politic, public discourse and ordinary participation in political communication and activity back to the 19th century of hierarchical elites?
Yes. Essentially what I’m suggesting – to develop the argument a little more – is that whilst Europe has been looking to recover a sensible take on online identity and ordinary people’s control over the same, the consequence of its cack-handed absence of a due consultation process on the matter is that public figures who wish to remove unpleasant truths from the worldwide web’s historical account can return themselves unreasonably to the domain of private figures – especially where their legal resources permit this to happen. But this isn’t the only – and rather obvious – consequence. The other dangerous possibility – particularly for democracy and its future health – is that those figures Google already judges to be public will become more public, more powerful and more able to influence our societies as time goes by.
And all because Google refuses, in cahoots with well-meaning legislation, to hide their activities – even as the rest of us scurry, understandably, to recover our rabbit-in-the-headlights anonymity.
The already famous will become proportionately more so.
The already relatively private (people like you and me), looking to recover a semblance of 20th century intimacy, will become increasingly – and simultaneously – irrelevant.
As the old adage goes: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity!” In the world where Google exerts an absolute control over whether one is visible or not, this could well become even truer than it was in the past.
So. Tonight I have some questions for those who know about these things, to take away and mull over and contemplate their implications:
- In order to become visible on the web, as a figure defined by Google as public, what degree, level or quality of achievement or notoriety will be required in order to remain resultingly visible?
- Who will define such criteria, what ideology or ideologies will be used to define them and how transparent and democratic will the process of definition be?
- How will Google measure the right to visibility (even as Europe tries to measure the right to be invisible) when comparing, for example, “notorious” celebrities with “deserving” scientific researchers, authors or philosophers of tryingly challenging discourse?
- Who or what will ultimately decide who has the right to be read, listened to, watched and observed on this supposedly even-handed worldwide web?
The answers to these and other questions will define the future in two ways:
- It may lead to a reassertion of traditional modes of hierarchical representation in our civilisation and societies – in plain language, posh elites telling the plebs what they can do, think and say!
- It may lead to a continuing development of a more decentralised and distributed democracy – in plain language, ordinary people telling the elites to bugger off!
For if we get the next year or so as wrong as we’ve got the past month, I do fear it’ll be the ineffective, inefficient and finally lazy former at the terrible expense of what would surely be a far more constructive latter.