Borges’s Funes, the “Memorious”, hurt his head after falling off a horse and suffered the strange consequence of being able to remember everything. This dubious gift gradually leaves him with the ability to do little other than lie silently on his back and remember. After the invention of computers, and then of the internet, the idea of memory has shed its comfortingly human limits. What the internet can hold and keep, for what seems to be an eternity, is beyond the capacity of individual and collective human (or elephantine) memory. Now the European Union’s highest court has told Google that, as a search-engine operator, it has to honour a European individual’s “right to be forgotten” by removing “inadequate, irrelevant...or excessive” information that might unduly harm the reputation of that individual. Google is, understandably, somewhat taken aback by this judgment.
All sorts of people, in Europe, wanting to erase specific elements of their past, which are irrelevant now or inconvenient, can avail themselves of this ruling to compel companies like Google, or lesser entities, to remove links to personal information. This is a tussle between the right to information and the right to privacy, created by the notion of another right that sounds fascinating but is, in effect, almost impossible to honour with regard to the internet: the right to be forgotten. The internet is the realization of that sublime, and potentially terrifying, idea one usually associated with Borges — an infinitely capacious archive made of imperishable units of knowledge or information that just about anybody with connectivity might access for all kinds of reason. To try to regulate this, and regulate this within clearly demarcated geographical-legal boundaries coinciding with those of the nation-states, would be a difficult job, requiring feats of policing, which might themselves result in sinister inroads into the idea of freedom informing the internet.