US v Europe - a cultural gap on the right to be forgotten

Shadow falls over a banner saying "Google Deutschland"

The reverberations from this week's landmark European Court of Justice ruling on the right to be forgotten continue to be felt.

Legions of lawyers are still trying to work out what it will mean for the search engines, and for millions of EU citizens who may want to force them to remove links to their past online lives. And the cultural divide between Europe and the US appears wider than ever, with two very different views of how we should live our lives online.

On the one hand there is what you might call the web utopian view, held by the US internet giants and some in Europe who look to Silicon Valley for inspiration. This sees the ECJ ruling as unworkable, illiberal and just out of touch.

The Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who divides his time between London and the US, explains to me why something like it could never happen across the Atlantic because of the constitutional guarantee of free speech: "This is not a debate the United States is even capable of entering into. You'd have to repeal the First Amendment - and that's like a religious artefact - so that's never going to happen."

Start Quote

Max Mosley

The internet shouldn't regurgitate things for ever”

End Quote Max Mosley

He tells me this is not necessarily a new cultural gap but one that is being made evident for the first time. "In the past if you were in Germany you were never worried that some encyclopedia website based in the United States was going to name you as a murderer after you got out of jail because that was inconceivable. Today that can happen, so the cultural gap that was always there about the regulation of speech is becoming more visible."

But in Europe many politicians and regulators and some - though by no means all - privacy campaigners have welcomed the ruling. Mr Wales' point about local laws - which used to mean old convictions simply disappeared from the record after a certain time - is one of the reasons for that support.

Europeans who have been told that the internet is basically ungovernable - and if it does have guiding principles then they come from the land of the free - are expressing some satisfaction that court has refused to believe that.

Max Mosley, who has fought privacy battles with tabloid newspapers and Google over pictures of a sadomasochistic orgy, expresses particular satisfaction that the European Court decided the search firm was subject to local laws. When I talked to him as he emerged from a radio studio he was also exercised about the rehabilitation of offenders: "A principle accepted in most civilised countries. The internet shouldn't regurgitate things for ever."

And he refuses to accept the idea that the online world just cannot be regulated. "The internet is so new that the law hasn't caught up with it but eventually it'll be regulated like every other aspect of society and that's quite right."

So a battle between two views of freedom - the US belief that free speech trumps everything, and the European view that individuals should have some control over what the world knows about them. But there is something else in play here, a growing unease about the power wielded by what are nearly always US web giants over our lives.

Mario Costeja Gonzalez on mobile phone Mario Costeja Gonzalez, the man who prompted this week's EU ruling against Google

Google, Facebook, Twitter and other firms that store and use vast banks of data about Europeans have all sought to deny responsibility for how people use and share that information. They also maintain that they are not media firms - which in Europe face strict regulation - but mere technology platforms enabling better communication. In Google's case that stance has come to bite it.

Media firms like the Spanish newspaper site at the heart of this test case, haven't been told to remove content. It is the "data controllers" - the search engines - which are in the court's sights.

Now there are obvious questions about the practicality of getting Google to decide which of billions of links to millions of European names should or should not be removed. The temptation for the company will be to automatically agree to all requests, rather than to set up a vast quasi-judicial bureaucracy to decide what is justified and what is not, and that could have a chilling effect on free expression.

But European web users, who have been told for so long that companies based in Silicon Valley cannot be told what to do in the UK or France or Germany, may feel a smidgen of satisfaction about the howls of outrage coming from across the Atlantic.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

Zuckerberg - the unasked questions

Mark Zuckerberg's appearance at the Mobile World Congress was a missed opportunity.

Read full article

More on This Story

More from Rory


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    "Except of course that Google Inc is not doing business in this country"

    But thats the whole point of the ruling and what has got Google spinning like mad - see nearly all of the media stories since.
    Their search results are what they sell, thats their business, and they do that wherever they can get paying customers; the location of their server farms is irrelevant for this particular issue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 243.

    So what's wrong with being gay? Nothing. Now. Not in this country. Fifty years ago, you'd have gone to jail for it.

    In Austria at the start of the 20th century there was nothing wrong with being Jewish. 40 years later it carried the death penalty.

    People have the right to a certain level of privacy, because who knows what the future may bring?

  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    "The reason there is a fuss is because a US company has been told they are subject to our laws when doing business in our country "

    Except of course that Google Inc is not doing business in this country when you type in a web search, nor when it pushes the result to your computer. It depends on where the servers which processed the search are

    See my post 232 for some explanation

  • rate this

    Comment number 241.

    All these headlines about dodgy folk demanding Google delete stuff about them - spin. Only if they get a court order, and Google can appeal that, with the usual Streisand effect.
    The reason there is a fuss is because a US company has been told they are subject to our laws when doing business in our country (in contrast to the US where they consider their laws apply to all companies worldwide).

  • rate this

    Comment number 240.

    Censorship here we come.

    You can "search" the BBC news site does this now mean news or forum articles to be removed if I find it does not make me out to be a saint.


Comments 5 of 244


Features & Analysis

  • Cartoon of women chatting on the metroChat wagon

    The interesting things you hear in a women-only carriage

  • Replica of a cargo boxSpecial delivery

    The man who posted himself to the other side of the world

  • Jon Sopel'Emailgate'

    Hillary gets a taste of scrutiny that lies ahead

  • Beauty contestants use selfie stick7 days quiz

    Who hasn't banned selfie sticks yet?

BBC Future

(Science Photo Library)

Nasa’s amazing airport simulator

How to train 21st Century controllers


  • A robotClick Watch

    The latest in robotics including software that can design electronics to solve problems

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.