In Argentina and the European Union, people can assert a “right to be forgotten“, in which internet companies are obligated to delete content which those complaining are unhappy to have online.
There is also a Canadian connection:
In June Canada’s Supreme Court ordered Google to stop its search engine returning a result advertising a product that infringed on a firm’s intellectual property… The Canadian ruling against Google, which applies worldwide, could be just the start. Later this year the European Court of Justice will decide whether the EU’s much-contested “right to be forgotten” applies not just to Google’s European sites, but to all of them. This would mean that links to information about people that is deemed “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” in the EU will no longer be returned in response to any Google search anywhere. If the firm does not comply, it may face stiff fines.
The Economist raises the risk that allowing such censorship by governments could “create a ‘splinternet’, with national borders reproduced in cyberspace”.
I am fairly skeptical about rights-based approaches to ethics to start with, in part because they aren’t very useful as soon as one person is asserting Right A against someone else’s Right B. In this case, the other relevant rights are freedom of speech and what might be termed the freedom to record history.
I think all this is particularly risky when it comes to photography. In many places, the fact that a statement is true is a defence against allegations of slander or libel. Unedited photographs are in some sense always truthful historical records, but there are nonetheless many reasons why people aside from the photographer or the media source using them might want to see them purged. Letting people use a supposed extension of their right to privacy as a mechanism for censorship risks stifling artistic and creative expression, as well as depriving the world of information about what really happened in various times and places.
It’s not surprising that people want unflattering things about themselves removed from the internet, from criminal records and critical news stories to photos they dislike and things they wrote themselves but came to regret. At the same time, the people who post media online have an interest in keeping it up, and the world as a whole has an interest in knowing what has happened in the past. Granting people the power to use the courts to manipulate the historical record seems worrisome to me, as well as a substantial burden for all the platforms where such records are stored.
One downside to electronic media of all forms is the possibility of after-the-fact censorship, which would be impractical for things like printed books and newspapers.