Dejan Lazić and the Right to Be Forgotten

The latest scandal in the classical music world has been the story of Dejan Lazić, who is trying to use the European Right to Be Forgotten law to suppress a four-year-old negative review that appeared in the Washington Post. There are plenty of articles that detail the story. Lazić insists that it is not the review’s negativity that has led to his campaign, but the fact that it has consistently appeared as the second result on a Google search for his name, right after his own website.1

There are two things to discuss here. The first is the review, and its potential impact on Mr Lazić’s career. The second is the Right to Be Forgotten law, its intention and its use.

The Review

Lazić, on his website:

I could have in this case simply and quietly contact [sic.] Google Europe and ask for this single, in my opinion defamatory article to be retracted from their search engines within the E.U.—something I have not done.

It seems extraordinary that Lazić thinks of this review as defamatory. Critics give their subjective opinion, with their authority coming from experience, not objectivity. Defamation is objective falsehood, by definition.

In any event, the review, though tough, is far from completely negative. Even its title, Sparks but no Flame, suggests a strong performer who failed to reach his potential on this occasion.

It’s not that Lazic isn’t sensitive—or profoundly gifted. The very first notes of Chopin’s Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante at the start of the program signalled that he can do anything he wants at the keyboard, detailing chords with a jeweler’s precision, then laying little curls of notes atop a cushion of sound like diamonds nestled on velvet. Again and again, throughout the afternoon, he showed what a range of colors he could get out of the instrument, switching from hard-edged percussiveness to creamy legato, crackling chords to a single thread of sound. The sheer technical ability was, at first, a delight.

Of course, if Lazić wants the review removed by court order, he has to make the review seem as damaging as possible. He won’t succeed if he says, “Well, she could have been a bit nicer.” But it’s hard to imagine even the most excoriating review by the most respected critic having any serious impact on an artist’s success. Just look at Mark Kermode on Sex and the City 2, or read Roger Ebert on Kick Ass.2

Lazić has said that he’d prefer to see the first page of Google filled with stories about this controversy than to see that review in such a prominent position. Whether or not it’s better, this campaign has had the notable P.R. result of pushing the review off the first page. It’s unclear if that was Lazić’s intention, but it’s been the result.

And this blog is contributing to it.

Whoops.

The Right to be Forgotten

(Road, Hell, Intentions)

Surely anyone with aspirations to professional performance wants to be remembered. Otherwise, why perform in the first place? Equally, those in the public eye have a right to control their image as much as they can. But “as much as they can” doesn’t include altering or hiding what other people have had to say about them.

Whether or not he’s successful, Lazić’s campaign is a case study in the problems with the well-intentioned Right to Be Forgotten law. Although the motivations are good, the law is written extremely broadly, and, though it allows for data to be kept online if it is in the public interest to do so, in some cases it seems to have been applied too liberally. Plenty of mistakes will be made, both by the lawmakers and by the companies, in the early days of the law.

All of that being said, perhaps the fairest assessment of the whole affair comes from the critic herself, Anne Midgette, in her response on the Washington Post:

Lazic has a point. I don’t agree that the review should be taken down. But I do think it’s worth discussing, in this evolving internet climate, the way that decisions are effectively made about what information clings to you and what falls away. Lazic didn’t like the review, and he doesn’t like me, but his main point all along has been that he is tired of being dogged by this single review after all this time. There are a lot of factors involved in how prominently something appears in a Google search, including how many hits it has and your own search history; furthermore, my review is also almost certainly one of the longest devoted exclusively to Lazic in a major newspaper.

A concert review is an opinion about a moment in time. Its value tends to decrease as time passes (with some notable exceptions). But the internet is built for permanence. Lazić is in the unenviable position of a public person at the beginning of his career. Any review on a major news source, good or bad, is going to remain prominent in search results until those reviews are the only search results.

Data permanence is one of the new categories of problem created by the internet that society currently has no clue how to solve.3 The Right to Be Forgotten law started from a sincere intention to solve a real problem: what can you do if you commit a misdemeanour at 18, and it appears every time a prospective employer googles your name? What can you do if your ex posts nude photographs of you online?

These are the real, serious problems that this law was written to solve.

But what if you gave a performance that a critic disliked?

You might just have to live with it.


1 Not any more.

2 I miss Roger Ebert.

3 See also: massive proliferation of data; what to do with data after death


UPDATE: I learned after posting that the pianist’s name is Lazić, not Lazic. I’ve corrected it in my writing, but left the Post’s, as I assume they had a reason for omitting the accent.

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