“Google’s Philosopher”

That is the title of this intriguing essay by Robert Herritt in the Pacific Standard — our favorite e-mag, by the way — summarizing the “philosophy of information” as well as the original work of Luciano Floridi, an Oxford philosopher who is inventing “entirely new ways of thinking about technology, privacy, the law, ethics, and, indeed, the nature of personhood itself.” Here is an excerpt from Robert Herritt’s Dec. 30th essay (edited by us for clarity):

Floridi is a professor of philosophy and the ethics of information … Driven by the idea that … “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” … 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.

But is the philosophy of information useful in the real world? Herritt’s essay also describes Google’s recent efforts to comply with a “perplexing ruling” in May 2014 made by the European Union’s Court of Justice in which the court declared that, in accordance with the European “right to be forgotten,” individuals within the E.U. have the right to prohibit Google and other Internet search firms from linking to personal information that is “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive.” Yet, as Herritt explains in his excellent essay, one of the reasons this legal ruling is so perplexing is that information companies like Google must now figure out how to comply with it. What does the “right to be forgotten” really mean?

For our part, here is our tentative (and Coasean) take on the “right to be forgotten” and the right to privacy generally in this Internet Age: Rather than trying to come up with “entirely new ways of thinking about technology, privacy, the law, ethics, and, indeed, the nature of personhood itself” — as highfalutin philosophers like Floridi would have us to do — why not try a market approach instead? That is, why can’t companies like Google and Facebook create a market in information? Specifically, we would assign the legal right to all information posted on the Internet to the public (i.e. err on the side free speech) and then give every person a “right of first refusal” to buy out the rights to any unsavory or embarrassing information about himself or herself. (By the way, our previous Coasean analysis of blackmail — where we out-Coase Coase — might be relevant here.) Under our market approach, in summary, you would have to pay Google if you wanted Google to “de-link” any information about yourself. Compared to the alternatives, markets in information would efficiently solve most of the privacy problems confronting information companies like Google and Facebook, don’t you think? If not, tell us why not …

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