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Why A French Attorney Is On A Digital Privacy Crusade Against Tech Titans


Type your name into Google...


INSKEEP: ...And you may find out something about yourself. You may find out how much of your life is public. And you may even find claims that are not true. People do. What do you do if you know that anybody who types your name in a search engine could come up with something false? There is a global movement based in Europe designed to stop Internet firms from letting this happen. NPR's Aarti Shahani visited a man in Paris who is at the center of the movement.


DAN SHEFET: Bonjour.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Dan Shefet wants Americans to wake up and realize, life can be better. We can have what the Europeans have. And by that, he doesn't mean - or just mean - a zesty tuna tartare sculpted atop a bed of steamed, perfectly salted spinach, paired with a dry, French white wine - apricot undertones.

SHEFET: We'll take two Chablis.

SHAHANI: Perfect.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

SHEFET: (Speaking French).

SHAHANI: Shefet means rights - legal rights, human rights in the digital age. And this time, it's not a government standing in the way. It's Internet giants like Google.

SHEFET: How far than they - can they control your life? When does it go too far?

SHAHANI: For Shefet, it's intensely personal, but more on that later. It is also political. Shefet, a small man with a big laugh, jet-sets around the world advising ministers on how they can punish tech titans for the harmful speech that goes viral. He counsels victims of slander, too, and politicians looking to bury a youthful indiscretion. Call him the all-purpose speech slayer, striking when the tech titans are down. Facebook is under investigation for violating user privacy. Google's been fined billions for illegally killing off competition.

SHEFET: These guys are being attacked from everywhere. And they understand that the time has come to be realistic (laughter).

SHAHANI: And he knows he's being overconfident. The powerful do not give up power easily. Shefet believes these titans have gotten a free pass. No other industry is so unregulated. Banks, for example, spend billions making sure the information in their system is correct.

SHEFET: If you don't, you lose your license. You go to prison. It's not in any way optional. And that's what they don't have.

SHAHANI: Shefet, a 63-year-old lawyer from Denmark, has a penthouse office down the street from France's White House. His campaign against Silicon Valley started with a single case - his own. It's Friday evening. The macarons have arrived.

SHEFET: Ah, yeah, you got to come in.

SHAHANI: ...Pistachio and chocolate. And Shefet breaks out the champagne.


SHEFET: You got to cheers. Come on.

SHAHANI: Leaning back in his black leather chair, he touches his right temple and begins to tell his story. In 2013, an enemy of a client created websites claiming Shefet was a member of the Serbian mafia. They rose to the top of his Google search results. Colleagues started to question Shefet. He realized his reputation was at risk, so he sued Google in Paris and won. The court ordered Google to stop highlighting the lies. But Google did not respond.

SHEFET: Not even a letter saying, we have received your injunction, but for the following reasons, we won't comply - nothing at all. Fine.

SHAHANI: Soon after, another court, the European Court of Justice, issued a landmark opinion about privacy on the Internet. And buried in it, there was a line Shefet grabbed to make a novel argument. Google's office in Paris could be forced to pay a fine for every day that Google headquarters in California ignored his court order. That is, the child could be punished for the sins of the corporate parent.

SHEFET: Suddenly, we in Europe have a remedy - efficient remedy, real remedy.

SHAHANI: Google finally scrubbed Shefet's results. And since that victory, his inbox has been flooded with cries for help, including from the U.S. - a state assemblyman in New York who wants advice on a bill to bring similar privacy rights to New Yorkers; consumer groups want expert testimony; individuals want help.

SHEFET: Why do American citizens call me in Europe to get their life back? Why? Isn't that strange.

SHAHANI: NPR reached out to Google, and they gave us their top privacy lawyer - Peter Fleischer, the man they put in Paris to counter the movement Shefet has helped build.

Should Americans have the same right that the Europeans have?

PETER FLEISCHER: Clearly, they don't.

SHAHANI: My question was, should they?

FLEISCHER: Well, the first question is, can they? Not, should they? And that's a legal question.

SHAHANI: Fleischer doesn't want Americans to be seduced. He makes two big points. First, America, more so than any other country on earth, values free speech so much so that it's the first of our amendments. What Europe's doing...

FLEISCHER: Would be inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution.

SHAHANI: And second, with its new laws, Europe is creating an Internet that people can exploit to hide the truth - people with criminal records who want to bury accurate news reports, lawyers and dentists who want to hide the complaints of unhappy customers, business owners obsessed with projecting a certain image.

FLEISCHER: I think a lot of people would think that's troubling to think that the more wealthy and powerful in the world can use this tool to polish up their online reputations far more than, you know, the average Joe.


SHAHANI: I'm having my last lunch with Dan Shefet - this time, blackened salmon, arugula with a wasabi drizzle.

SHEFET: That's why I never answer my phone. It's too good.


SHAHANI: Actually, he always answers his phone. And these days, he's getting new callers - not just Western democracies, but also authoritarian states like Singapore and Saudi Arabia. Shefet wants to make something clear. He is not Google's enemy. In fact, they share values, like don't be evil. And he brings up another case - not from the courts, but from personal history - his mom and dad.

SHEFET: My mother divorced my father just after I was born. I don't know whether there was a cause and effect on that.

SHAHANI: It was a time when almost no one divorced. He says they hated each other. And for many years, Shefet didn't have contact with his father, which made him sad because his dad was a vast ocean of knowledge. But then...

SHEFET: The funny thing is, I started seeing him again. They remarried each other. They were divorced for, like, 15 years, and then they got married again (laughter).

SHAHANI: They found a way to see each other's point of view. Shefet hopes it takes the tech titans and their disaffected users less time than it took his parents, and he feels he can be a peacemaker in the process. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Paris.

INSKEEP: That's the first in a series on the clash between privacy and free speech. We'll have more later this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SECEDE'S "BORN IN A TROPICAL SWAMP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.
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