The “right to be forgotten” ruling in Europe has provoked a firestorm of protest from internet behemoths and some civil libertarians.* Few seem very familiar with classic privacy laws that govern automated data systems. Characteristic rhetoric comes from the Wikimedia Foundation:
The foundation which operates Wikipedia has issued new criticism of the “right to be forgotten” ruling, calling it “unforgivable censorship.” Speaking at the announcement of the Wikimedia Foundation’s first-ever transparency report in London, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said the public had the “right to remember”.
I’m skeptical of this line of reasoning. But let’s take it at face value for now. How far should the right to remember extend? Consider the importance of automated ranking and rating systems in daily life: in contexts ranging from credit scores to terrorism risk assessments to Google search rankings. Do we have a “right to remember” all of these-—to, say, fully review the record of automated processing years (or even decades) after it happens?
If the Wikimedia Foundation is serious about advocating a right to remember, it will apply the right to the key internet companies organizing online life for us. I’m not saying “open up all the algorithms now”—-I respect the commercial rationale for trade secrecy. But years or decades after the key decisions are made, the value of the algorithms fades. Data involved could be anonymized. And just as Asssange’s and Snowden’s revelations have been filtered through trusted intermediaries to protect vital interests, so too could an archive of Google or Facebook or Amazon ranking and rating decisions be limited to qualified researchers or journalists. Surely public knowledge about how exactly Google ranked and annotated Holocaust denial sites is at least as important as the right of a search engine to, say, distribute hacked medical records or credit card numbers.
So here’s my invitation to Lila Tretikov, Jimmy Wales, and Geoff Brigham: join me in calling for Google to commit to releasing a record of its decisions and data processing to an archive run by a third party, so future historians can understand how one of the most important companies in the world made decisions about how it ordered information. This is simply a bid to assure the preservation of (and access to) critical parts of our cultural, political, and economic history. Indeed, one of the first items I’d like to explore is exactly how Wikipedia itself was ranked so highly by Google at critical points in its history. Historians of Wikipedia deserve to know details about that part of its story. Don’t they have a right to remember?
*For more background, please note: we’ve recently hosted several excellent posts on the European Court of Justice’s interpretation of relevant directives. Though often called a “right to be forgotten,” the ruling in the Google Spain case might better be characterized as the application of due process, privacy, and anti-discrimination norms to automated data processing.