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Google's Philosopher

How an Oxford don is helping the tech giant understand the nature of modern identity—and stay out of court.
Luciano Floridi. (Photo: Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA/Corbis)

Luciano Floridi. (Photo: Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA/Corbis)

One day this past September, Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, sat down with a group of experts in Madrid to begin publicly discussing how Google should respond to a recent, perplexing ruling by the European Union’s Court of Justice. In May, the court had declared that, in accordance with the European “right to be forgotten,” individuals within the E.U. should be able to prohibit Google and other search firms from linking to personal information that is “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive.”

In an age of revenge porn, social media gaffes, and all the infinite varieties of embarrassment that can attend one’s name in a Google search, the ruling was, in spirit, an attempt to keep ordinary Europeans from being unduly tyrannized by an Internet that, famously, never forgets. In practice, though, the ruling passed the buck: According to the court, it was now up to Google to figure out how to field, evaluate, and adjudicate all requests coming from European citizens wishing to scrub their online histories in accordance with the law.

The court’s judgment has provoked no shortage of criticism, with many seeing it as an assault on press freedom, the freedom of speech, and the Internet as we now know it. Jimmy Wales, one of the co-founders of Wikipedia, condemned the ruling as a first step toward “censoring history.” Other critics focused on the court’s decision to delegate so much responsibility to a tech giant. Jules Polonetsky, the executive director of a Washington think tank called the Future of Privacy Forum, denounced the judgment to the New Yorker for “requiring Google to be a court of philosopher kings.”

For Floridi, you are your information, which includes everything from data about the relations between particles in your body to your life stories.

Such critiques, however, have been of little help to Google in the immediate aftermath of the ruling. The company is required by law to comply with the judgment, so it quickly assembled a panel of experts to help chart a path forward, starting with the meeting in Madrid. Sharing the stage with Schmidt were the sorts of tech-industry insiders, legal scholars, human rights advocates, and media leaders that one might expect Google to call on, among them Wikipedia’s Wales; Le Monde’s editorial director, Sylvie Kauffman; and Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond. But there was one advisor who stood out: an Oxford professor, trained in metaphysics, epistemology, and logic, named Luciano Floridi. To build its court of philosopher kings, Google needed a philosopher.

FIT, 50, AND FOND of subtly tailored gray suits, Floridi is not the kind of person one would expect to find rubbing shoulders with the Silicon Valley elite, much less providing them with policy guidance. But in dealing with the Court of Justice’s ruling, what Google needed was a new way of thinking about the challenges before it—something that Floridi was uniquely qualified to offer.

But first, a bit of background. In 2010, a Spanish lawyer named Mario Costeja González appealed to Spain’s national Data Protection Agency to have an embarrassing auction notice for his repossessed home wiped from a newspaper website and de-indexed from Google’s search results. Because the financial matter had been cleared up years earlier, González argued, the fact that the information continued to accompany searches of his name amounted to a violation of privacy.

The Spanish authorities ruled that the search link should be deleted. In May 2014, the European Court of Justice upheld the Spanish complaint against Google. Since then, Google has received more than 140,000 de-linking requests. Handling these requests in a way that respects both the court and the company’s other commitments requires Google to confront an array of thorny questions. When, for instance, does the public’s right to information trump the personal right to privacy? Should media outlets be consulted in decisions over the de-indexing of news links? When is it in the public interest to deny right-to- be-forgotten requests?

Here’s where the dapper Italian philosopher comes in. Floridi is a professor of philosophy and the ethics of information, and he is the director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute. For more than a decade, he has distanced himself from the sort of conventional Anglo-American philosophy that occupied him for much of his early career. Driven by the idea that, as he put it to me, “philosophy should talk seamlessly to its time,” he has set about developing a new approach to his discipline that he calls the philosophy of information. Floridi has described PI, as it is known, as his attempt to provide “a satisfactory way of dealing with the new ethical challenges posed by information and communication technologies.” And, wouldn’t you know it, Google happens to be in the market for just that.

Although difficult to summarize, Floridi’s program comes down to this: For anyone who wants to address the problems raised by digital technologies, the best way to understand the world is to look at everything that exists—a country, a corporation, a billboard—as constituted fundamentally by information. By viewing reality in these terms, Floridi believes, one can simultaneously shed light on age-old debates and provide useful answers to contemporary problems.


Luciano Floridi. (Photo: Chris Keulen)

Consider his take on what it means to be a person. For Floridi, you are your information, which comprises everything from data about the relations between particles in your body, to your life story, to your memories, beliefs, and genetic code. By itself, this is a novel answer to the perennial question of personal identity, which has preoccupied philosophers since at least Plato: What defines the self as a coherent entity over time and space? But Floridi’s view can also help us think precisely about the consequential questions that today preoccupy us at a very practical level.

Now that the mining and manipulation of personal information has spread to almost all aspects of life, for instance, one of the most common such questions is, “Who owns your data?” According to Floridi, it’s a misguided query. Your personal information, he argues, should be considered as much a part of you as, say, your left arm. “Anything done to your information,” he has written, “is done to you, not to your belongings.” Identity theft and invasions of privacy thus become more akin to kidnapping than stealing or trespassing. Informational privacy is “a fundamental and inalienable right,” he argues, one that can’t be overridden by concerns about national security, say, or public safety. “Any society (even a utopian one) in which no informational privacy is possible,” he has written, “is one in which no personal identity can be maintained.”

"I can sell my hair," he said, "but I can't sell my liver." Google, Floridi continued, should be asking questions that will make similar distinctions.

As unorthodox as his philosophy may be, Floridi believes it merely makes explicit a point of view that many of us have already adopted, whether we realize it or not. It’s routine, after all, for us to understand our health in terms of biometric data; to construct our identities through social networks; and to carry out meaningful relationships entirely online. “We format our lives, our world, our reality, from an informational perspective,” he says. To date, we’ve done this informally, but the time has come to think more critically about the concepts and frameworks we use to understand the world in this new technological era—which, he argues, has brought about a shift in self-understanding that’s as dramatic as the ones precipitated by Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud. Just as the theory of evolution by natural selection revealed that we aren’t special and separate from the rest of the animal kingdom, for example, the development of advanced information and communication technologies has revealed that we are, as he has put it, “interconnected informational organisms ... sharing with biological agents and engineered artifacts a global environment ultimately made of information.” Refrigerators, fruit flies, websites, human beings: We all exist together in what Floridi calls the infosphere—an ecosystem that a company like Google has significant power to shape.

PART OF THE CHALLENGE that Google faces in the right-to-be-forgotten case is figuring out how to translate broad, difficult-to-define values into concrete policy. The philosophy of information can help with this, Floridi contends, because it opens up a space in which the debate can become more than just “a zero-sum game: Team Privacy vs. Team Free Speech.”

“There is some data of mine that is so personal,” he explains, “that not only should nobody have it, but I should not be allowed to share it. ... But at the same time, there is plenty of data about me that doesn’t constitute me.” Where you were yesterday for lunch: That doesn’t constitute you.

When I pressed Floridi for specifics about which personal data might be deserving of protection in right-to-be-forgotten cases, he made a helpful analogy. “I can sell my hair,” he said, “but I can’t sell my liver.” Kidneys can be donated, but they cannot be legally bought and sold: When it comes to bodies, we have arrived at certain broadly accepted norms like this over time. Google, Floridi continued, should be asking questions that will make similar distinctions. “Is the information this person would like to see de-linked, or even perhaps removed, constitutive of that person?” he said. “Or is it something completely irrelevant?”

This is the perspective that Floridi brings to Google’s advisory council. At the council’s public meetings, the last of which took place in Brussels on November 4, 2014, Floridi often played the role of hard-nosed investigator, pressing his fellow interlocutors to elaborate on, clarify, or deviate from their prepared remarks, all in an attempt to advance the discussion beyond what he sees as its unproductively entrenched positions. Much of Floridi’s work is motivated by the idea that in choosing the rules that govern the flow and control of information, we are constructing a new environment in which future generations will live. It won’t be enough, he has written, to adopt “small, incremental changes in old conceptual frameworks.” The situation demands entirely new ways of thinking about technology, privacy, the law, ethics, and, indeed, the nature of personhood itself.

That’s a lot of weight for the right-to-be-forgotten case to bear. Many observers of the case, Floridi admits, won’t initially recognize how high the stakes are. “I mean, this little thing about a Spanish gentleman in question who wanted to have a link removed?” he says. “It’s tiny.” Nevertheless, Floridi believes the case might spark “a huge fire,” one that will, as the divide between our online and offline existences continues to blur, profoundly redefine how we live. In that context, Floridi is asking questions that not just Google but all of us need to consider. “Who can exercise what kind of power over which kinds of information?” he asks. “This is immense in terms of the information society, the world, and how we want to shape it.”

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