News / Science & Technology

Is There A 'Right to Be Forgotten'?

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.

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by: le_comment from: California
May 17, 2014 4:14 PM
The question is - *what* do you have the right to know about other people? Googling curiosity is often spurred by a gossipy instinct: we like to find out demeaning things about other people because it makes us feel superior or even powerful, since we have, in theory, the ability to humiliate them in an encounter.

People googling for a "background" check may end up evaluating whether a person is a "good fit" - i.e., letting subtle forms of discrimination come into play. Perhaps you can learn from forum activity that the person has political beliefs you reject: that might not factor into their babysitting skills at all, but suddenly you will decide you don't like them as a person.

While many articles have been mentioning the ability of rich people to shape the information available, creating a sort of "dossier inequality", not much has been said about the inability of poor people to do anything about it when lies are embarrassing private information is posted on the Internet. Revenge porn is an extreme example, but another example might be when someone is named - mistakenly - as a person of interest in a crime: their name and other identifying information might appear in the mainstream media, which would lend further credibility to the allegation. Later exonerating articled might not appear in the same google search. You may have the "right" to have a retraction printed, but will anyone see the retraction? If you're poor, you will not be able to afford to get the references removed, whether they are true or not.

Frankly, I think all web sites should be regarded as publishing, and everyone should be held to the standards of mainstream media: they should not be able to directly name or post images of anyone who isn't a "public" figure without permission. If a mistake was made, "redaction" should mean removing the name from the original article. The standards of what constitutes a "public figure" should be very high: for instance someone should not be able to take you to small claims court, get your name on a document, and then call you a "public figure". These rules should be enforced by very easy to enforce penalties that people can claim from each other directly or with minimal administrative costs, without high legal fees.

Forums and social media systems should stop demanding displays of "real identity", because this will inevitably lead to information removal complications in the future.

Government "public documents" - such as property records, divorce proceedings, mug shots, meeting minutes - should be obtained through some procedure, not posted on the Internet for the casual Googler - or worse the big data aggregator who will profile people from this information.

Lastly, I hope people will not forget that Google isn't the only search engine. I remember giving Bing a try a few years ago, and I was horrified when a comment I had made on a silly forum circa 1995 - under my real name - was the first thing to show up. I wrote a complaint to the Bing team: they did not reply.

Sadly many people think they have a "right to know" until their own privacy has been violated: only then do they realize the profound affects that Google can have on a life - whether they did something to "deserve" it or not.


by: Glen
May 17, 2014 10:39 AM
The European Court of Justice right now, should concern itself with matters pertaining to humanitarian issues such as the heinous attack on a Zimbabwean farmer and his daughter, whilst walking on their farm. The daughter has subsequently died and the farmer has undergone delicate surgery. Please can there be real justice once and for all and International support against this barbarism.


by: Frank Bradley from: atlanta
May 17, 2014 10:09 AM
I read that Google would have to decide what is in the public interest and what is not given that the ruling exempted those things that are deemed in the public interest. Is it right to expect a private company to make that decision? How on earth would they do it? Would it not be simpler as I read that one commentator had said, for google to merely deny all requests and then be directed by a decision that was referred to an EU country regulatory board.


by: Onebhk from: ASU
May 16, 2014 10:59 PM
I would rather call it "Right to be NOT known"


by: Wondering from: somewhere
May 16, 2014 7:09 PM
I just forgot................................................


by: John
May 16, 2014 7:02 PM
This article misses the point that rights, such as a right to free speech and a right to privacy, at least as they have been conceived in the United States Constitution, exist to protect people against abuses by government, not to protect people against abuses by private companies like Google.

A right to free speech prevents the government from censoring your comments, but it does not prevent a private website from doing so.

And a right to freedom from searches prevents the government from intruding on your privacy, but it does not prevent private websites from doing so.

The concept of "rights", and the way that this "right" differs from other "rights" that we are accustomed to, needs to be clarified.

In Response

by: Thomas Reimel from: Montgomery County, pa
May 17, 2014 6:47 PM
The article misses no such point: the Court ruling pertains to the EU.

In Response

by: Chris
May 17, 2014 10:04 AM
Well said. People forget this fact or just don't know it. The same can be said for the most part regarding the U.S. Constitution and individual state constitutions. If it does succeed, one interesting derived right that might come from this is the ability to be forgotten by the government itself.


by: Thomas Paine from: California
May 16, 2014 6:58 PM
There is an older case in New York state court -Sidis case as I recall- which dealt with a written article in New Yorker magazine about a former child prdigy who sort of failed at real life, though he was a genius in his youth. He successfully sued - it was not defamation, but the magazine shouldn't have dredged up his past, as I recall. Interesting precedent for this recent European decision??


by: David Carlson from: Philadelphia
May 16, 2014 6:55 PM
It seems to me the age old conflict between justice and mercy.


by: Yror from: Boulder, CO
May 16, 2014 6:48 PM
These Euro's...I just don't get it. Let all the creeps who have something to hide erase there history.

Seems simple to me that if a website has the right to publish information about someone then the search engine should have the right to point to the pages that contain the information.

This ruling is ridiculous.


by: Steve Holle from: Montana
May 16, 2014 6:34 PM
You want a right to be forgotten? Talk to the Chinese. They have a system they'd love to sell to the EU. Have the internet your way.

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