Tiffany Jenkins: Public names have no right to be forgotten

Pressure on Google to remove search results despite them being a matter of record threatens freedom itself, writes Tiffany Jenkins

Google has taken down search results relating to French citizens. Picture: AFP

On admission to the Foundling Hospital, set up in 1739 for the care and education of children at risk of abandonment, four-month-old Sue Smith became Jane Tucker, in order to secure the anonymity of the birthmother, a poor and fallen woman, and that of the illegitimate child. Illegitimacy carried a deep social stigma. There was no socially acceptable way to keep and raise an infant born under these circumstances – the wealthy had other methods of disguise at their disposal – so staff changed the name of the baby and the mother’s name was not recorded. Anonymity protected the mother and child. By taking and caring for her baby, the hospital gave both a second chance, and the shameful details of the pregnancy could be forgotten.

Maintaining a good name, one’s reputation, in what were conservative and repressive times, demanded a kind of namelessness, a practice that continued up until a century later, including for those in a profession that perhaps appears less deserving of sympathy – journalists. Hacks on Grub Street published anonymously, at first: journalism was not a respectable business and many wanted to disguise the fact that they wrote for multiple newspapers. Hiding the name of the author who was covering a political or social scandal was thought to be one way to ensure the truth. But by the 1860s, anonymity was understood to encourage slander and lies. Printing the name of the journalist in black and white alongside the article they wrote, encapsulated the increasingly public spirit of the age.

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There was a growing conviction that “publicity”, what some might today term “transparency”, was essential to a climate in which to nurture goodness and truth. Publicity – open courts, the codification of laws, and a free press – according to the philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham, would not only educate the public, it would also improve the nature of political conversation because – if watched – elected officials would behave better. In an increasingly democratic age, stating one’s individual name was a sign of responsibility and accountability. And it was about being part of an increasingly influential public.

Fast-forward to today, to the so-called information age, and there are multiplying calls for anonymity, such as the demand for anonymity in rape trials, for both the complainant and the accused (currently something only the former is granted). Increasingly, as with WikiLeaks and the activist group Anonymous, political agitation is masked. We don’t know the name of most of the campaigners and hackers – we don’t know who they are. Online commentators rarely go by their real name, opting instead for a moniker when they leave their diatribes beneath newspaper articles. It’s confusing and can be a little frightening to read.

You may think we are living in more open times, that censorship is a thing of the past, that it is impossible to hide anything about ourselves today, and that all information is out there, online, but in fact, in important ways, the opposite is the case. Most obviously, with the right to be forgotten.

After the European Court of Justice established a “right to be forgotten”, last year, citizens have the right to ask Google to remove “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” results for queries that include their names. The links still exist, but will not be listed in a search. Thousands of people have successfully applied to have information removed from search engines. Last summer, Google reported it had processed more than a quarter of a million requests to delist links to more than one million individual web pages.

Like what? The pages affected may disappear from the searches, but they do still exist, and they record significant information of public interest – events, acts – things that it should not be easy to forget. For example, BBC Online has published details of the links to BBC webpages that Google has delisted from results for queries on certain names (we do not know who has requested the delisting). One is a story headlined: “Man jailed for raping woman as she slept at house in Livingston”; another, is “Council education chiefs probed” and is about senior education officials at Aberdeenshire Council. Another headline reads: “Kilmarnock teacher struck off after sex with pupils.”

This is not private information, stuff that was never intended for public consumption, like e-mails people have sent to one another, or intimate photographs. Delisted, in the service of forgetting, are news reports and court rulings – matters of historical, public record. Google is one of the most important companies in the world. Everyone uses its search engine. Its mission used to be to make the world’s information accessible and useful. It is now a major censor of important information once published in the public domain.

And this week, the blackout got worse. To give Google credit, the company is not enthusiastic about the right to be forgotten. Up until the summer, it only removed links on European versions of its sites, leaving the information, which is still available outside the EU, obtainable. But CNIL, a French privacy campaign organisation, ordered Google to delist information from all its websites, including that on – outwith Europe. Google appealed; but lost. French citizens now have the right to be forgotten worldwide. This seems to mean that a French national data protection authority can assert a global authority to control the content that people can access around the world.

CNIL claim this is about privacy, but it’s not – it’s about tampering with the public record. It’s about removing sensitive information that should be out there and available to all of us. As Google says: “This is a troubling development that risks serious chilling effects on the web.”

The demands for anonymity must be resisted. They are a step backwards into the darkness, away from the necessary scrutiny and accountability of publicity. Namelessness does not befit the public sphere.