The Solace of Oblivion

By Jeffrey, Toobin | The New Yorker, September 29, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Solace of Oblivion


Jeffrey, Toobin, The New Yorker


THE SOLACE OF OBLIVION

In Europe, the right to be forgotten trumps the Internet. The European Court ruled that Google must delete certain links that violate privacy.

On October 31, 2006, an eighteen-year-old woman named Nikki Catsouras slammed her father's sports car into the side of a concrete toll booth in Orange County, California. Catsouras was decapitated in the accident. The California Highway Patrol, following standard protocol, secured the scene and took photographs. The manner of death was so horrific that the local coroner did not allow Nikki's parents to identify her body.

"About two weeks after the accident, I got a call from my brother-in-law," Christos Catsouras, Nikki's father, told me. "He said he had heard from a neighbor that the photos from the crash were circulating on the Internet. We asked the C.H.P., and they said they would look into it." In short order, two employees admitted that they had shared the photographs. As summarized in a later court filing, the employees had "e-mailed nine gruesome death images to their friends and family members on Halloween--for pure shock value. Once received, the photographs were forwarded to others, and thus spread across the Internet like a malignant firestorm, popping up on thousands of Web sites."

Already bereft of his eldest daughter, Catsouras told his three other girls that they couldn't look at the Internet. "But, other than that, people told me there was nothing I could do," he recalled. "They said, 'Don't worry. It'll blow over.' " Nevertheless, Catsouras embarked on a modern legal quest: to remove information from the Internet. In recent years, many people have made the same kind of effort, from actors who don't want their private photographs in broad circulation to ex-convicts who don't want their long-ago legal troubles to prevent them from finding jobs. Despite the varied circumstances, all these people want something that does not exist in the United States: the right to be forgotten.

The situation is different in Europe, thanks to a court case that was decided earlier this year. In 1998, a Spanish newspaper called La Vanguardia published two small notices stating that certain property owned by a lawyer named Mario Costeja Gonzalez was going to be auctioned to pay off his debts. Costeja cleared up the financial difficulties, but the newspaper records continued to surface whenever anyone Googled his name. In 2010, Costeja went to Spanish authorities to demand that the newspaper remove the items from its Web site and that Google remove the links from searches for his name. The Spanish Data Protection Agency, which is the local representative of a Continent-wide network of computer-privacy regulators, denied the claim against La Vanguardia but granted the claim against Google. This spring, the European Court of Justice, which operates as a kind of Supreme Court for the twenty-eight members of the European Union, affirmed the Spanish agency's decisions. La Vanguardia could leave the Costeja items up on its Web site, but Google was prohibited from linking to them on any searches relating to Costeja's name. The Court went on to say, in a broadly worded directive, that all individuals in the countries within its jurisdiction had the right to prohibit Google from linking to items that were "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed."

The consequences of the Court's decision are just beginning to be understood. Google has fielded about a hundred and twenty thousand requests for deletions and granted roughly half of them. Other search engines that provide service in Europe, like Microsoft's Bing, have set up similar systems. Public reaction to the decision, especially in the United States and Great Britain, has been largely critical. An editorial in the New York Times declared that it "could undermine press freedoms and freedom of speech. …

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