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May 16, 2014

Is There A 'Right to Be Forgotten'?

by Kent Klein

The so-called "right to be forgotten" is being debated after the European Court of Justice ruled that the Internet search engine Google must sometimes, on request, remove links to articles containing personal information.

It's a debate about which is more important: the right to privacy or the freedom of information.

According to Glenn Gabe, president of G-Squared Interactive, who has provided digital marketing services to executives and celebrities, many people have something in their past they would like to removed from the Internet.

"[Let's say] they went to prison, right? And maybe ten years ago everything happened, and everything's still showing up in Google on page one, even though they've paid their dues," he said.

At the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, executive director Marc Rotenberg agrees with the court's ruling that privacy is a basic right.

"When you talk about free expression, you have to consider the ability of individuals to control the dissemination of information about themselves," he said. "That is, in many respects, the core of free expression — how we choose to express ourselves or not to say things or do things. That's, you know, what makes us human."

But a number of U.S. privacy advocates disagree with the European court's Google ruling.

For Jules Polonetsky, executive director of Washington's Future of Privacy Forum, the decision sets a legal precedent that is likely to limit the freedom of information in general — both in terms of individual privacy and, in some case, the right to a free press.

"If someone can tell search engines, news aggregators or maybe bloggers, 'Sorry, that information tells us about some individual, that individual doesn't want to be found, [so] you need to take it down,' the effects really could be dramatic," he said. "It breaks the Internet."

While the right to a free press is specifically mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the right to privacy is merely implied.

"It's a real blow to transparency if legal, public information can be obscured simply because somebody decides that it's information that they would rather not be available," said Polonetsky.

But Rotenberg says the European judges did a good job of balancing privacy with press freedom in this particular case, in which they ordered Google to delete links containing personal information about a Spanish lawyer's 1998 tax problems at the lawyer's request, because the information, the court said, was no longer relevant.

"And what the European Court of Justice has done with this decision is to say, in effect, you know, search is an important service, but it has to be done in a way that protects privacy," he said.

The ruling will be costly for Google and other search engines in Europe, but is not expected to immediately affect their U.S. operations.