Google Gets a Philosopher to Decide Who Gets "Forgotten"

What would Plato do?

That's the question on the lips of the major search engines as they rush to respond to the European Court of Justice's recent "right to be forgotten" ruling. Google has announced that they are now accepting requests from Europeans to take down links to unflattering or potentially damaging reports or content. What lies ahead is an ethical and legal morass of issues and contentious debate as to remove to respect an individuals privacy and what remains in the public interest.

As I have argued before, the ECJ has effectively made Google both judge and jury when it comes to deciding what is or is not visible to European users. Surely this is not what the Court had in mind -- that a Silicon Valley-based company should be the adjudicator of cases from Connemara to Crete. The company is throwing in Iceland and Liechtenstein for good measure. The law of unintended consequences strikes again.

To help navigate these turbulent waters, Google has announced a seven person advisory committee, headed by Chairman Eric Schmidt and including Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales and a number of privacy and free speech experts. Also included is Luciano Floridi, an information ethics philosopher at the Oxford Internet Institute. I think it's highly appropriate that an academic grounded in the tradition of Aristotle and Plato should be thrust into this most modern of battlegrounds. I'd love to be an existential fly on the wall of their debates!

After all, a few years back, having attended my first Safety Advisory Board meeting at Facebook, I made the argument in the Guardian that what that company needed above all was a philosopher to help their young staff determine what was "good" and "acceptable" and what was not. These were (and still are) determinations that the over worked content management staff has to make at warp speed on a daily basis. Overstep the mark, and users cry foul, or worse, censorship. Err on the side of free expression and others criticize you (as I have done) for crossing a line and for not adhering to their own content policies.

Perhaps each of the seven committee members should be required to read "Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away" by Rebecca Goldstein. In it she gets to grip with the legacy of Platonic thought and argument. Best of all, and with the flair of a novelist, she then places Plato in modern day settings, such as a Authors@Google Talk or debating religion and morality with a right wing talk show host. The committee are going to need all the philosophical help they can get to help them determine what we can remember and what we must forget, at least in Europe.

Of course, the links that are lost to Europeans will be still available to us in North America and other jurisdictions that don't have a similar rule. What is telling about the Google announcement is that the expunged links will also come with a note that these have been taken down due to the European Court's ruling. This is similar to the notices for Google results in China which have been censored by the authorities. Is this Google's way of suggesting that Europe is starting to look like the People's Republic when it comes to content controls online?

I wonder what Plato would say.

(Disclosure: The Family Online Safety Institute, a registered charity, receives financial support from Google, Facebook and over 30 other Internet companies as well as Trusts and Foundations.)