Google's memory hole a bottomless pit: Don Pittis

A top European court ruling on the "right to be forgotten" online sounds like an excerpt from George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, and we should fight it tooth and nail, Don Pittis writes.

European court ruling on 'right to be forgotten' sounds like excerpt from Orwell's 1984

Internet companies such as Google can be made to remove irrelevant or excessive personal information from search engine results, Europe's top court has ruled. (Alan Diaz/Associated Press)

In the early 1990s, while doing research for a book in Oxford, I stumbled across a wondrous research tool that told me some unpleasant news about my family.

I thought of that experience when I heard that Europe's top court had ruled that Google and other internet companies must respect the "right to be forgotten" and that they could be ordered to remove some personal information from search engine results. 

My research project was only 20 years ago, but in the world of information, it was a different age. 

Oxford's Bodleian Library collection was still indexed using a room full of enormous hardcover volumes where librarians pasted in a new entry for each book added to the collection. 

Learning the 17th-century methods to make the system work was the first step of any research project.

On a break from my real work, I happened upon the newfangled computerized version of something called Palmer's Index. It came as a revelation. 

In 1867, Samuel Palmer, a London bookseller, published a series of volumes painstakingly indexing the pages of the Times of London going back to 1790.

A disappointing egosurf

The Bodleian's spanking-new computerized version meant you could search your name and find out what your family had been up to.

So of course I did my first ever egosurf. What a disappointment. 

I recall one Pittis had got himself a baronetcy, but for the most part the family record that was significant enough to make it into The Times was a litany of court reports on every crooked Pittis for more than 100 years. 

The journalists' rule of thumb is that good news isn't news. The same applies to history. There may be a host of lovely people out there who have been good parents and nice to their neighbours, but their histories go largely unrecorded. 

The idea that we could go through the paper volumes of Palmer's Index and snip out irrelevant or excessive personal information is an evident offence to history. 

But here is the European Court of Justice saying we should do something similar with the electronic record. 

Thank goodness those paper volumes are still stored around the world so that the European Union at least cannot get their hands on all the copies of Palmer's Index. 

But the safety of paper copies is quickly disappearing. Since the 1990s, the move to electronic information has extended so that many publications have no other form, no hard-copy backup of the electronic data.

History changed in a whoosh

The European Court has shown the horrible danger of an ephemeral electronic storage system. 

Suddenly a government or court can rule that information no longer exists in an easily accessible form. A paragraph from an electronic book, an article in an electronic newspaper, cannot be searched. And whoosh, history has changed.

It sounds like an excerpt from George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984 where The Ministry of Truth could decide which facts were acceptable.

In George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, The Ministry of Truth could decide which facts were acceptable. (Associated Press)
"For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes," Orwell wrote. "When one knew that any document was due for destruction … it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building."

Orwell's concept is more than fiction. You don't have to go to North Korea to find governments rewriting their history books. Japan's wartime history reads differently from China's record of the same events. Russia's history of the Katyn Massacre is different from Poland's. 

Once governments have a legal mechanism for rewriting the facts of history, who can doubt they could be tempted to misuse it.

We don't want to leave Google in charge of our history, either. But already the company has become one of the essential players in sharing the archive of the world's information. Googling is the modern global equivalent of flipping through Palmer's Index. 

We should fight with tooth and claw to prevent any Ministry of Truth from deciding which entries should be snipped out and dropped down the memory hole.

Don Pittis is on Twitter @don_pittis.


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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