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Like most children I learned from my school days that the Philistines were, well Philistines, which they were not; that the nineteenth century machine-wrecking Luddites in England were against technological progress, which they were not; and that an imbecilic King Canute ordered the waves to go back, which he did not. So much for school-book history.

In reality King Canute (or Cnut the Great) was rather wise, advising his courtiers that a King has no more power than any mortal person and only God can command the seas, something according to some ancient accounts he tried to demonstrate by placing his throne upon the sands and commanding the sea not to wet his feet. The European Commission and European Council could possibly learn a thing or two from Cnut in its approach to Internet search.

The issue is the unchallengeable ruling of the European Court of Justice that the “Right to be Forgotten” is to come into force whereby any individual can request that a search link to some types of personal information about them on the Internet be deleted. (Not to be confused with the right to delete personal information protected by privacy laws, such as medical records.) They will have to show that the information is outdated and of no apparent public interest, and deleting the link does not delete the original information. It just makes it harder to find.

Personal data privacy advocates are mistakenly delighted. EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding claimed a “clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans” on her Facebook page. It is quite amazing to think that in a world of global Internet the data of “Europeans” can be boxed off as safe. Anyone in the USA, for example, can access the information with links still attached. It’s only the Europeans, who like the Chinese, who will be obstructed. For example, Europeans conducting legitimate background checks on other Europeans to see if they are suitable employees, are safe to deal with, do not have nasty skeletons in their cupboards, will have seek the assistance of non-European based search firms.

The ruling itself poses some interesting questions. When is something truly out-of-date? When is personal information never to be considered of public interest? Of course, these legal questions also apply offline, but apply them to the infinite size of the Internet and lawyers have a job for eternity. But admittedly, there is nothing new there.

But these are merely legal considerations. What about the technology? A private VPN in Europe can easily by-pass a censored Google to reach an uncensored Google. One of the unintended consequences of the ruling may be a massive wave of VPN offerings nicely packaged for smartphones, tablets and built into the browser or app for social networking sites. They are already widely used by the P2P downloading community to bypass copyright material, so here maybe is their opportunity to go legitimate and serve the information society.

Of course, the EU could move to outlaw these communications tools, a move of such outstanding absurdity that it cannot be entirely ruled out of court. The problem for Ms Reding and her fellow commissioners is that their support for the “Right to be Forgotten” in the name of personal data privacy is completely inconsistent with the end of privacy implicit in the global reach of the Internet. Squaring circles has never been a sustainable activity. Come back Cnut, by some you are not forgotten!

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