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When Should Privacy Trump Free Speech?

In a May 2014 decision, Europe’s highest ruled that search engines doing business in the EU must process takedown requests for search results that individuals believe violate their privacy rights -- creating a formal, EU-wide "right to be forgotten." Since then, they have been flooded with tens of thousands of such requests. More often than not, these are to factually accurate public information. Many critics, such as TechDirt's Mike Masnick, worry that this has already opened the door for disgraced politicians, sex offenders, and malpractice-burdened doctors to wipe their slate clean ( And an editorial from the Wall Street Journal warned this would create “an Internet with borders,” where access to information differs depending on where you live.

Join us for a discussion of the EU decision's consequences, its spread to other countries, and how it is already affecting American tech companies and Internet entrepreneurs. And if it could ever take root in America.


  1. Following the EU ruling, many other countries have either adopted or are considering proposals to institute a "right to be forgotten." Could more heavy-handed regimes like Russia or China exploit this to institutionalize censorship under the banner of privacy?
  2. A ruling from the Supreme Court of British Columbia cited the EU decision as a basis for ordering a search engine to remove links from the global Internet. While no court in the United States is likely to uphold it, the search engine's business activities in Canada could force it to comply anyway due to financial incentives. Are we likely to see more cases like this in the future, where foreign governments can impede freedom of expression in America?
  3. In a court case in France, Nazi artifacts on Yahoo’s auction site ran afoul of a French law banning the display of Nazi paraphernalia -- and the French court ordered listings to be removed from Yahoo's servers in the United States. Financial incentives compelled Yahoo to comply -- despite a U.S. court backing them up. But what would happen if a Russian court ordered a major search engine like Yahoo or Google to remove gay and lesbian sites from its global database?
  4. If privacy should sometimes trump free speech, what should be the limiting principle? In the digital age, is making something unsearchable as good as deleting it?
  5. Could the "right to be forgotten" create a chilling effect and/or bad incentives for news sites and journalists (who get paid through ads delivered to search-driven traffic) for what types of stories and information they publish? Could this affect American news outlets even if it's just a European law?



Ray Lehmann, Senior Fellow & Editor-in-Chief, R Street Institute

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