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Grasping the idea of what it means to forget

A European court ruling upholds a Spaniard’s ‘right to be forgotten.’

In 1890, years before his appointment to the United States Supreme CourtLouis Brandeis published an influential Harvard Law Review article introducing the concept of “the right to privacy,” which he also called “the right to be let alone.” 

The new concept caught on. By 1947, Justice Felix Frankfurter, one of Brandeis’s successors on the high court, called privacy a right “second to none in the Bill of Rights.” 

Not bad for a word that’s not even in the Constitution.

Now comes a new development in civil liberties law from across the Atlantic. In March 2010, a Spanish lawyer named Mario Costeja González lodged a complaint with the Spanish Data Protection Agency against a newspaper, La Vanguardia. It had run a brief article 12 years earlier about the sale at auction of his house to pay his debts. 

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Factually accurate, and touching on a matter of public interest, the article was nonetheless, by 2010, in the lawyer’s view, “no longer relevant to his life,” as Time magazine put it, and he wanted it expunged from the public record. He was also unhappy with Google, whose search engine turned the piece up for anyone entering his name.

The agency dismissed the complaint against the newspaper but upheld the one against Google. The case made its way to the European Court of Justice, in Luxembourg, which affirmed the original decision last month: The lawyer had a right to demand the removal of links to the article he found offensive.

Right to privacy, meet “the right to be forgotten.”

“Make no mistake,” Lev Grossman wrote in Time, “this is a watershed moment in human history: mankind, after spending untold millennia looking for ways to be remembered by posterity, must now beg to be forgotten instead.” 

We don’t normally think of it this way, but forget is, etymologically, a kind of opposite number toget, a very ordinary but hardworking verb that got some attention in this space last week.

To forget is to “un-get,” hence “to lose” from the mind, as the Online Etymology Dictionary explains. What we forget, we let out of our mental grasp.

For, by the way, is a curious little syllable in English. As a preposition, it can mean either “because of” or “in spite of.” For instance: He was rewarded for all his efforts. But also: “For all his efforts, he just never got calculus.” As a combining element, it can mean “completely,” as in forswear, meaning to renounce utterly, or to “swear off” something. But for can also mean “away, amiss, opposite” – or “not,” in other words. That’s what’s going on with forget.

Forget is, grammatically speaking, an active verb, but forgetting happens independent of conscious volition – despite that volition, in fact. It is precisely when I tell you, “Forget about the blue elephant,” that I make it impossible for you to do so.

Forgetting is a very human process, a quick skim through the overloaded in-boxes of experience. The European court ruling, if it stands, will play out in a quicksand of nuance. Where do we draw the line between privacy interests and the public right to know? Once the line is drawn, how does Google draw it for its computers? Machines remember differently, and they “forget” differently, too.

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The irony in all this is that more people have heard of Mr. González’s loss of his home than ever before. He will be remembered for his right to be forgotten.