In the pre-Internet era, getting a bad review was no fun — but then the next day's newspaper would come out, and everyone would move on. Today, though, that negative review lives on forever — and it might be one of the first results when someone searches for you online. It's understandable that you might want to make that review disappear. Should you be able to?
Some European governments are beginning to believe you should — which is one reason why Croatian pianist Dejan Lazic felt empowered to ask the Washington Post to unpublish a negative review of one of his performances. That's unlikely to happen, but Lazic's demand has stirred up a conversation about what some call "the right to be forgotten."
The review by Anne Midgette, published on Dec. 6, 2010, called Lazic "a pianist of prodigious gifts" but criticized aspects of the performance including Lazic's "concert-pianist playacting gestures: head flung back at the end of a phrase; left hand conducting the right hand; or a whole ballet of fingers hovering over keys and picking out their targets before an opening note was even struck at the start of Chopin's Ballade No. 3."
Citing a May ruling by the European Union that individuals have a "right to be forgotten" — that is, a right to have "inadequate, irrelevant, or [...] excessive" links removed from search results for a person's name — Lazic wrote to the Washington Post on Oct. 30, requesting that the article be removed from the Internet. Paradoxically, he said he request had "absolutely nothing to do with censorship." In Lazic's view, the review mischaracterized his performance — in his petition to the Post, he called the review "defamatory, mean-spirited, opinionated, one-sided," and "offensive" — and he believed he was within his rights to request that the review be unpublished.
The Post has no intention of complying with Lazic's request: even in Europe, the policy applies only to search engines, not to publishers of content such as the Washington Post. (Lazic says he knew that, and was only mentioning the European Union ruling to make a point.) Still, Washington Post reporter Caitlin Dewey publicized Lazic's request because, she writes, "It's the first request The Post has received under the E.U. ruling. It's also a truly fascinating, troubling demonstration of how the ruling could work."
Lazic's request, writes Dewey, "torpedoes the very foundation of arts criticism" and "essentially invalidates the primary function of journalism, which is to sift through competing, individual storylines for the one that most closely mirrors a collective reality."
The attention given by a major publication to what might be seen as a patently absurd request reflects journalists' growing unease over the emerging "right to be forgotten." Though it doesn't apply in this case, the policy has had real bite in Europe, where Google has approved the majority of requests for links to be removed. Journalists around the world — whether they're reporting on classical music or on politics — are concerned that the power of the press will be undermined if individuals are allowed to determine what links will appear in search engine results, which have heretofore been taken to be objective and unbiased.
On his website, Lazic has responded to Dewey's article with a lengthy post that reads, in part, "the wider public should be aware of this particular case where a single outdated article seems to be prioritized on Google searches for years now, and on top of that, it is the article written by a journalist who is simply crossing the line of good taste and fair journalism time and time again, with countless artists involved (not only myself), all of which is also going on for years now!"
While the "right to be forgotten" may someday become the norm around the world, for now, Lazic's campaign has had precisely the opposite effect: a search for his name currently brings up his home page, then Midgette's review, and then a variety of news articles referring to him as a "disgruntled classical pianist" (The Independent) who needs to grow "a thicker skin" (Slipped Disc). The Internet — for now, at least — has spoken, and refuses to be silenced.