To the Editor:


rthur Herman is quite right to note that the United States must take a firm stance for Internet freedom and against the suppression of ideas in Russia and China [“The Road to Internet Serfdom,” March]. However, emerging legal norms in democratic nations undercut the freedom of the Internet and legitimize totalitarian censorship elsewhere in the world. Without addressing these troubling desires to censor in the West, we cannot effectively stand against censorship in countries like Russia and China.

In 2014, the European Court of Justice ordered Google to suppress a search result for the 16-year-old foreclosure on the property of Mario Costeja González, a Spanish man who successfully convinced Europe’s highest court that he possessed a human right to de-link his name from embarrassing information. Today, any citizen living in the EU can easily exercise this “right” by filling out an online form and submitting a photo ID to a search engine. To determine whether to censor a URL from its search results, Google claims to “balance the privacy rights of the individual with the public’s interest to know and the right to distribute information.”

Similarly, multiple domestic courts around the world have ruled that search engines like Google “defame” plaintiffs when search results for their names contain a link to defamatory information. However, what one person or fickle court considers defamatory could in fact be highly pertinent to the public interest. Likewise, a duplicitous public figure may one day use the specter of defamation as a cudgel to induce search-engine censorship.

Authoritarian countries like China and Russia often employ the trappings of legality, including defamation, to justify their repressive tendencies. At one level, it is a good sign that totalitarian regimes must couch themselves in the language of Western law; it suggests that their citizens will not tolerate the naked exercise of power. But when Western legal systems develop a norm for mild Internet censorship, we provide ammunition and excuses for dictators looking to commit worse abuses. In other words, to win the battle for information freedom, the West must not only preach with vigor as Mr. Herman suggests, but also practice what it preaches with puritan fervor.

Nathaniel Zelinsky
West Haven, Connecticut

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