A recent ruling by Europe's top court has given its people a "right to be forgotten." Google and other search engines must now delete "inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant, or excessive" information from search queries when a European individual requests it, even when the info is true. This isn't a classic case of censorship: the "offending" pages produced by newspapers and other websites will go untouched. Google and the other search engines just won't be allowed to link to them.
The court has largely left to the search engines how best to handle requests to decouple the names of petitioners from search results served, which has already produced major confusion, as well as a comically passive-aggressive response from Google, which has received more than 70,000 requests in the opening round, with 1,000 said to be arriving daily. (See this Washington Post editorial for a few examples of people who have succeeded in persuading Google to "delist" certain search results.)
How did a right to be forgotten become enshrined, even in a place as retrograde as Europe? If you've lived in a village or even a small town, you probably learned the hard way that privacy has never existed in the original state of nature. Everybody in a small town knows that you drink, how much you drink, and what brand, thanks to that rumor-mongering liquor-store clerk. They know where you sleep at night, who you sleep with, and whether your nights are restful or rambunctious because the local pharmacy tech gossips about your Ambien and Viagra prescriptions. The librarian knows what books you've checked out of the local library, the local merchants recall having rejected your overextended credit card, and they all swap this information like chattering birds on a wire.
That big, fat, distributed dossier can't be suppressed. Traditionally, the best way to escape small-town nosiness was to light out for the nearest city, where personal information couldn't be collected so cheaply and couldn't be shared as efficiently. It also helped, of course, that the city's million other inhabitants care not at all about you, and your neighbors barely know you exist. When you did get caught doing something embarrassing, the newspapers and court records might trap it in ink. Those who possess good memories might remember your indiscretion and blab about it. But retrieving all that information and maintaining it was too damned expensive. The only American institution that justified the cost of keeping close tabs on the personal lives of the human hordes was the Federal Bureau of Investigation, whose agents and hired clipping services followed thousands.
But the bliss of being an unknown cog in a big city turned out to be temporary glitch, remedied by technology. In the early 1970s, LexisNexis arrived to digitize news and court cases, driving down the cost of information retrieval and encouraging newspapers and other information sources to add their troves to the pile, which it resold at high prices. Not long after, credit bureaus commenced swallowing financial data about the public by the terabyte and regurgitating it for clients. The commercial Web, which arrived in the mid-1990s, drove the cost-curve of information retrieval down and also democratized it to the point that you can download human backstories by the millions -- many of them revealing -- after keystroking a few search terms into Google.