Should the US Federal Trade Commission force Google to respect people's "right to be forgotten"?
Last year a European court ordered the online search giant to bow to people's interest in obscurity, and ever since the company has had to take requests from European citizens who want their Google results purged of unflattering links.
European judges reasoned that privacy concerns should take precedence over public access to online speech.
Now Consumer Watchdog, a U.S. nonprofit, wants to bring these sorts of limits on freedom of expression to the United States: The group petitioned the FTC to force Google to offer U.S. citizens similar treatment. It's an understandable but misguided request.
First, any FTC action likely would run afoul of the First Amendment.
The FTC wouldn't mandate the removal of information from the Internet; Web sites wouldn't be taken down. But they would become much harder to locate, with the FTC effectively prescribing what speech should be findable and what should not.
The government shouldn't entangle itself.
Consumer Watchdog's request also would create an incentive for tech companies to suppress information, as they would face regulatory scrutiny for permitting unflattering information to remain accessible while facing little countervailing pressure to keep information findable.
Google has acceded to only about 40 per cent of delisting requests it has received in Europe since it lost its case there. But the company could decide in the future that carefully evaluating delisting requests isn't worth the time, and other companies might, too.
Even without FTC action, Europe's regulatory overreach may affect the whole Internet: French privacy authorities are pressing Google to remove links from all its search sites, not just those most Europeans use.
If government mandates are a bad idea, what about voluntary action? Google says it wants its search results to reflect "the whole Web," not just what search subjects want viewable.
That's the right instinct. As much as possible, there should not be two worlds of public information online - an attenuated one that is accessible to all, and a wider realm that is accessible to those with more time, know-how or money.
Moreover, online norms should not tilt the system against small-time publishers in favour of larger ones who have more capacity to make a fuss when their links are delisted.
After pushback from major European media organizations, Google restored links to some of their material. It seems unlikely a local blogger writing on a no-name site would get equal consideration, or even know how to press for it.
There's room for compromise with people who worry that one slip-up saved on a Web site somewhere will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Google announced in June that it will deny people easy access to "revenge porn," for example, since its only purpose is to degrade.
And when it comes to information people voluntarily surrender about themselves, whether for public circulation or not, Web services' privacy policies should be clear about what information users are handing over and how they can purge it later.
These would be modest improvements. But unspectacular progress is better than starting down the road of stifling the Internet's remarkably free flow of information.