The ‘right to be forgotten’

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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

16 thoughts on “The ‘right to be forgotten’”

  1. At a minimum, there are special cases like doxing and revenge porn where it makes sense for a court to be able to order the removal of material from the internet. Maybe it’s a mistake to cast that as part of a general ‘Right To Be Forgotten.’

  2. Why the Canadian Privacy Commissioner’s Proposed Right to be Forgotten Creates More Problems Than it Solves

    Perhaps most troubling is that the report empowers search engines to play the role of judge and jury over the relevance and harm associated with links to content. Companies such as Google have attracted increasing concern over their ubiquitous role in how we access information. If implemented, the Privacy Commissioner’s report would troublingly expand that role by granting Internet giants the power to determine upon request whether a search result is incomplete or outdated as well as whether it should be de-indexed, lowered in ranking, or flagged as incomplete. In the search for a solution to online reputational harm, the proposal creates more problems than it solves.

  3. “There are many ways this editorial could fall foul of Malaysian law. If it is too critical of Malaysia’s government, or of its courts, or of its system of racial preferences for Malays (the biggest ethnic group), or of its pampered and prickly sultans, it could be deemed seditious. If it contradicts the government’s account of any given event or circumstance, it could be in breach of the Anti-Fake News Act, adopted last year. Then there is a series of restrictive laws about who can publish what and who can give offence to whom (it is essential to steer clear of anything that might be construed by a paranoid prosecutor as an insult to Islam, in particular). These rules give the police an excuse to arrest irksome journalists and hand censors the authority to ban and seize offending material. If all else fails, a trio of laws that allow long periods of detention without trial can be used to lock up activists, opposition politicians or anyone else.”

  4. Google wins ‘right-to-be forgotten’ fight with France

    Google won its fight against tougher “right to be forgotten” rules after Europe’s top court said on Tuesday it does not have to remove links to sensitive personal data worldwide, rejecting a French demand.

    The case is seen as a test of whether Europe can extend its laws beyond its borders and whether individuals can demand the removal of personal data from internet search results without stifling free speech and legitimate public interest.

    “Currently, there is no obligation under EU law, for a search engine operator who grants a request for de-referencing made by a data subject… to carry out such a de-referencing on all the versions of its search engine,” the European Court of Justice (CJEU) said.

    “However, EU law requires a search engine operator to carry out such a de-referencing on the versions of its search engine corresponding to all the (EU) member states,” it added.

    The case arose after France’s privacy watchdog CNIL in 2016 fined Google €100,000 for refusing to delist sensitive information from internet search results globally upon request in what is called the “right to be forgotten.”

  5. The benefit of retroactive correction in some instances—imagine fixing a typographical error in the proportions of a recipe, or blocking out someone’s phone number shared for the purposes of harassment—should be contextualized against the prospect of systemic, chronic demands for revisions by aggrieved people or companies single-mindedly demanding changes that serve to eat away at the public record. The public’s interest in seeing what’s changed—or at least being aware that a change has been made and why—is as legitimate as it is diffuse. And because it’s diffuse, few people are naturally in a position to speak on its behalf.

  6. Last year Turkey gave individuals and companies the right to demand that tech firms delete some information about them. This supposedly emulates the “right to be forgotten” held by citizens of the European Union, but safeguards against abuse of the new system are weak. By the end of 2020 nearly 40,000 news reports had been blocked or removed from the web by court order. These include a story about an adviser to Mr Erdogan who forged his high-school diploma, messages posted to a forum about the president’s wife’s luxury handbag, and articles about a wrestling champion who was convicted of rape. The web censors have occasionally ended up chasing their own tails. Earlier this year, after one court blocked access to a story concerning a tender secured by a friend of Mr Erdogan’s son, a second court blocked access to news reports about the first court’s decision.

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