An unpublished letter to New Yorker magazine, August 2015.
Kelefa Sanneh (“The Hell You Say”, Aug 10 & 17) poses a question close to the heart of society’s analog-to-digital conversion: What is speech?
Internet policy makers worldwide are struggling with a recent European Court of Justice decision which grants some rights to individuals to have search engines like Google block results that are inaccurate, irrelevant or out of date. Colloquially known as the “Right To Be Forgotten” (RTBF), the ruling has raised the ire of many Americans in particular, who typically frame it as yet another attack on free speech. Better defined as a right to be de-listed, RTBF makes search providers consider the impact on individuals of search algorithms, alongside their commercial interests. For there should be no doubt – search is very big business. Google and its competitors use search to get to know people, so they can sell better advertising.
Search results are categorically not the sort of text which contributes to “democratic deliberation”. Free speech may be many things but surely not the mechanical by-products of advertising processes. To protect search results as such mocks the First Amendment.
Some of my other RTBF thoughts: