Many tech companies are unforgiving on forgetting

Business Opinion: notion of trying to regulate the internet appears far off the agenda in North America

Google warned that regulating the web would cost jobs and help dictators.  Photograph: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

Google warned that regulating the web would cost jobs and help dictators. Photograph: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

 

The fallout from the European Court of Justice’s ruling that we have a right to be forgotten on the internet has yet to cross the Atlantic. Google has responded with an online form on which you can request it to censor links to web pages that contain wrong, damaging or just old information about you. But the page is only for Europeans and its introduction was accompanied by much metaphorical head-scratching by Google and warnings that regulating the web will cost jobs and help dictators.

It’s a perspective that was voiced several times by speakers on the EY Entrepreneur of the Year retreat, for this year’s finalist, in Vancouver and Seattle last week.

What was clear from the speakers was that, while they were aware of the ruling to a greater or lesser extent, they had not really stopped to give it too much thought.

One suspects that the notion of trying to regulate the internet – or even just the search aspect of it – is so far off the agenda in North America that it hardly seems worth talking about.

Indeed, you get the sense that the notion of “a right to be forgotten” is just another attempt by Europe to fight the inevitable and hang onto outdated concepts.

It encapsulates in a nutshell the post-world-war narrative of a backward-looking Europe in decline and a forward-looking US in the ascendant.

This argument takes as a given that the right to be forgotten can’t be upheld in any meaningful way. This in turn preempts the need for a discussion on whether it’s desirable or ethical that it should be done.

But even if it could be done, the strong consensus among the tech community is that it shouldn’t be done. This is understandable. The Snowden revelations about the extent the US spies on us via the internet have not resonated as loudly of the other side of the Atlantic because the National Security Agency’s activities are 50-50 on whether it’s a good thing on not.

One suspects the momentum is with those who oppose it but for the moment the debate is framed – largely by the tech industry – in terms of jobs and progress. The basic premise is that the the web and regulation are antithetical to each other.

If the web had been regulated in its early days it might never have happened, or remained the preserve of Governments. Instead it has regulated itself and creativity and innovation has flourished, goes the argument.

Right now it is particularly important to the industry that this premise is unchallenged. Many of the exciting web start-up companies that participants on the retreat were exposed to had business models built on the assumption that they would have unfettered access to all the information that people wittingly and unwittingly make public about themselves on the web.

This was the case with Kent Langley, a serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur and adjunct faculty member of Singularity University, the valley’s virtual university dedicated to exponential technologies that will transform the planet. His latest venture Ecko helps companies mine the vast amounts of real-time data on social media and elsewhere.

But the paradox inherent in this view was neatly illustrated during his talk. As we listened to Langley, a piece of paper was sent around the auditorium. It was a non-disclosure-agreement, covering another company the EY entrepreneurs were to visit the next day. In this instance the right to privacy was not the enemy of the web and innovation it seems.

The enthusiasm shown by the tech industry for rules and laws that help them – the global enforcement of intellectual property laws , double taxation treaties and the like – and its idealistic libertarian dismissal of those that stand in its way is the biggest hole in the argument against at least trying to regulate the web in the public interest.

The other argument – that it is just not possible to erase something from the web – is much stronger. But as Langley said, if it had to be done then figuring out how to do offers a tantalising business opportunity. One suspects that if there was enough money involved, the right to be forgotten could become a very popular idea in Silicon Valley.

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