Do We Have the Right to Expect to be Forgotten?
I was looking for this past week’s news when I stumbled on the website for the Independent (link in the shownotes) and there was the video story of Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales blasting the European Union’s stance on “The Right to be Forgotten”. I was familiar with the concept. In fact in an article I wrote when I was getting my certs at Western Governor’s University, I mentioned this when I was discussing online privacy. So what is The Right to be Forgotten?
Wikipedia’s definition of the right to be forgotten is a concept that has been discussed and put into practice in the European Union (EU) (most notably France) and Argentina in recent years. The issue has arisen from the desires of some individuals to “determine the development of his life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past.”
A definition from Tech Target/Search Content Management is: The right to be forgotten is the concept that individuals have the civil right to request that personal information be removed from the Internet.
Mr. Posner is correct. Europe is way ahead of the USA in terms of expectations of privacy both in cultural expectations and legal precedent. Does that make them better, safer, comfortable in their expectation of maintaining their privacy?
In May, 2014 the European Court of Justice (ECJ) found that Google violated a Spanish lawyer’s right to be forgotten by refusing to eliminate links to embarrassing articles about him in their search results.
Their ruling was this: Google must remove links to web pages that contain personal information unless the public’s interest in access to the information in question outweighs the privacy interests of the person who is affected.
American media and many online behemoths have chimed in saying that the ECJ has gone too far and they have no right to bind the 1st Amendment freedom of speech and they are killing the free and open Internet.
Face it people, we are not the same. There is a cultural difference between America and Europe and this issue illustrates it wonderfully. Posner said: America is rigidly ideological about free speech while Europe is pragmatic and flexible. I’m not trying to stereotype here but couldn’t you say that about a lot facets of both cultures?
So basically the deal is this: any one of us can do something (I was going to try to get cute here and describe an event where we did something stupid and we will now have to live with it for the rest of our lives but that’s not it here). It’s about any negative piece of information about you that finds its way to the Internet. You are just a normal Mr./Mrs./Ms. American and this event happened a long time ago. It could be a bankruptcy, a law suit against you, or maybe a minor criminal record expunged. Now the underlying aspect here is: what does this event from so long ago (say 10 or 20 years ago) say about who you are today? Water under the bridge and all. That piece of information about you online (an article or something) is buried in time as it were. But if Google indexes it in their search engine it is there for all to find as easily as it is to type your name in a Google search. In America the possibility of winning a lawsuit against a media giant on a 1st Amendment issue is tough to say the least. In Europe, the right to be forgotten gives non-public figures more protection from anyone trying to publicize their past. You see, the information is still on the Internet somewhere but without a search engine’s algorithms good luck finding it. So the right to be forgotten doesn’t censor the information it just makes it more difficult to find.
So I thought this is a very timely subject and maybe I should cover it immediately. It may not be on everyone’s mind here in the USA because we lean so heavily on the 1st Amendment and the “nearly” absolute doctrine of the freedom of the press. And then I kept thinking that this illustrates so well the differences between us in the US and Europe. We are on the conservative extreme that the Constitution protects freedom of the press almost universally. Just try to fight against it. And Europe concept of personal privacy has evolved into a somewhat more pragmatic form.
Europe is way ahead of us as far as online privacy is concerned. I lean toward understanding that the Right to be Forgotten is an evolutionary step into the Online world of the 21st century. Just because we have no laws concerning something doesn’t mean we don’t need them. We will wait until the system performs in a way that disgusts us all and only then do we stand a chance of changing and moving forward. I guarantee you that if we let Congress study and attempt to handle this then the end product will be the result of money and favors changing hands via lobbyists and industry giants as is the current state of affairs with Net Neutrality.
When society and an industry such as the Internet evolves and changes we need to change our laws along with it. But the powers that be will always fight for the status quo because change costs money. Change could alter power structures within society and government. Call me cynical but never let it be said that the right thing to do ever stood in the way of government policy.