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Europe's shock Google privacy ruling: The end of history? Don't be daft

COURTS will decide whether a complaint has merit. As one did on Tuesday

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Professor Google – the only historian we need?

Once you've read the ruling, it's clear much of the press hysteria isn't remotely justified; it's a self-feeding loop. So much of the wild dystopian speculation is clearly contradicted by the ruling itself. But it says a lot about two things: how the media views the individual and how it dances to Google's tune.

The giant internet plantations like Facebook and Google constantly demand the individual surrender their individuality, their formal legal rights – their right to privacy, the right to control their creativity – must all be diminished. At the merest sign of inconvenience, they then invoke a mob to defend their interests – evoking woolly language like the "open internet". They did so with SOPA and ACTA, are doing so with net neutrality, and do it every day with their fight against privacy. The sky is falling!

Jimmy Wales, an American now active in British politics, has emerged as the lead boot boy for Big Internet. He was at it again yesterday.

Alone among the news outlets yesterday, BBC's Newsnight (in which I appear, briefly) mentioned that the ECJ strengthened the rights of the man in the street. This is correct. The individual has not won "the right to be forgotten", merely the removal of something very damaging, from something very powerful, in circumstances when the right to know isn't impinged. But you wouldn't know it from most of the coverage.

In the EU, the individual has a right to privacy. But a right is not a magic light-sabre, and an assertion of a right is not, in itself, the same as winning every argument using that magic light-sabre.

Judges must still decide each complaint on its merits, and balance rights. What you can't do is complain when they assert it. Yesterday we had the surreal sight of Big Brother Watch, which tells us it fights for privacy and the individual, going in to bat for Google.

Voices to defend the individual were thin on the ground.

Another question, raised by the hysterical and ill-informed reaction, begs some answers. If erasing an old entry from Google is now, as Jon Snow suggested yesterday, "the end of history"*, then that implies we appointed Google as our sole digital historian.

Is this really what we want to do? Aren't there cultural archives to do this sort of job? Wouldn't they do this rather better than a multinational that finds itself in opposition to privacy law? And would we allow cultural archives and libraries to be quite as unaccountable and powerful?

Hopefully this judgment is the start of a national debate on what our digital memory box might look like. Frankly, we've all got a bit lazy and dependent on Google to do it for us.

As for the press, all it may have achieved with the "book burning" hysteria yesterday is encourage people whose claims don't have much merit – the egotistical, the prickly – to troll the Information Commissioner. Well done, everyone. Trebles all round. ®

* Channel 4 News headlines' intro begins: "We have the right to have our past wiped off the internet, says a European Court. A victory for privacy, or the end of history?"

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