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You don't have to look far these days to discover new threats to the free and open Internet we all rely on. In just the past few weeks, OpenMedia has helped fight off a costly new "Link Tax," mobilized supporters against a reckless spying law, and ran high-impact bus ads against the Trans-Pacific Partnership's Internet censorship plan.
Over the past year, however, a new threat has arisen from an unusual source. In May 2014, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that a Spanish man, Mario Costeja González, had the right to have links to a 1998 Spanish newspaper article about him removed from search engines.
This ruling set a precedent that, in the EU, means any citizen can now request to have links to articles about them censored from search engines. This new censorship provision has been known as the "right to be forgotten," and it obviously conflicts with our right to knowledge and free expression.
On the face of it, this may sound like a fairly non-threatening development, but it's one that could drastically change how people share, communicate, and access information online.
Let's look a little closer at why this European approach is so problematic:
- First, these censorship measures include powers for politicians to cover up unsavoury stories about their past. Should politicians really be allowed to censor the Internet by forcing search engines and other aggregators to remove links to articles about their nefarious activities?
- Second, the European approach puts the cart before the horse -- interfering with the technology that makes the web work is not the answer. Let's say there is a genuine need to get a piece of content taken offline -- for example, a website publishes an article falsely accusing you of being a thief. In such a case, the onus to remove the content should be on the website publishing it; not on the search engines or user-based content platforms like reddit that are merely link to it.
- Third, the European model is extrajudicial -- web companies are required to censor content independent of a judicial process. This means web companies are being forced to monitor and directly interfere in the free flow of information online. If any content online is to be censored, we should ensure the process is managed through a fair, transparent and impartial judicial process.
To get an idea of the potential dangers, we need look no further than Russia, where the authoritarian government has just passed its own version of the "right to be forgotten." Under Russia's new law, links can be removed simply for linking to "unverified information." The law even allows politicians and oligarchs to request the removal of vast swathes of negative information about their activities. This system may seem like a far cry from the Internet as we know it, but it is not such a stretch from the European system with its lack of judicial processes and safeguards.
Thankfully, there is a straightforward positive alternative to this type of unrestrained web censorship. There should be a transparent, independent, judicial process which individuals can avail themselves of when they wish to have content about them removed from the Internet. And, if successful in that process, the onus to remove such content should be placed on the host of the content -- and not on web services like Twitter, Pinterest or Google.
Do you think companies, politicians and others should be able censor web content without a judicial process? Let us know in the comments! You can also learn more about our growing international campaign to Save The Link at SaveTheLink.org
David Christopher is Communications Manager with OpenMedia, a community-based organization that safeguards the possibilities of the open Internet. A version of this column originally appeared in the CCPA Monitor.
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