Coming Soon: Meet the Oxford Philosopher That Works for Google

To figure out how exactly to balance the values of public information and personal privacy—and how to stay out of court—Google has done the sensible thing.
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In an age of revenge porn, social media gaffes, and all the other varieties of embarrassment that can affix to one's identity on the Internet, a European court has invoked the "right to be forgotten" and required Google to come up with a set of protocols that will allow E.U. citizens to scrub their online personal histories of information that is “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive.” To figure out how exactly to balance the values of public information and personal privacy—and how to stay out of court—Google has done the sensible thing: It has hired a dapper Oxford philosopher named Luciano Floridi.

Robert Herritt's Pacific Standard column will be made available to subscribers—in print or digital formats—soon, and will be posted online in full on Tuesday, December 30. Until then, an excerpt:

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.

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