If there is any first law of the internet, it must surely be the law of unintended consequences.
Such must be the lesson facing Mario Costeja González, the Spanish man who sparked Tuesday’s contentious European court of justice (ECJ) ruling on the “right to be forgotten” online.
The article Costeja González wanted the world to forget was 36 words long, dating from 1998, and said his home was being repossessed to pay off debts. His concern was the piece’s prominent position among the Google results if his name was searched.
The good news for Costeja González is that the ECJ shared his concern, establishing that even though the newspaper acted in the public interest in publishing the piece, Google was infringing his privacy in making the information available. Sixteen years later, it seems Costeja González has won his fight.
And yet, inevitably, the victory is pyrrhic: the ECJ ruling has huge implications, and is hugely contentious – it could add significant burdens to online businesses, and could even lead to tech giants closing European offices to escape the law’s reach, and that’s before its world-spanning freedom of speech implications are considered.
The net result of such a big ruling? In 1998, Costeja González was contending with 36 words of Spanish. On Tuesday alone, 840 articles in the world’s largest media outlets were written in reference to his case, including in countries where his name would otherwise never have been heard, and where the ECJ’s ruling will never reach.
A failed attempt to suppress a piece of information leading to its global dissemination is one of the oldest and most famous internet phenomena, so well known it has a name: the Streisand effect (named after a failed attempt by Barbra Streisand to have photos of her house taken offline).
Costeja González won his fight for a right to be forgotten, or at least to disappear. Unfortunately for him, the fight was pretty damn memorable.