The Right to be Forgotten

Some struggle to be remembered. For others who wish to be forgotten, there is hope.

Before the internet, people lamented that they were faceless numbers. Now, with government surveillance, instant reporting by global news, we long for the good old days of obscurity.

forgotten

We are often victims of our own vanity. We willingly, and sometimes foolishly, throw compromising photos and private details all over social media.

The top European court has a solution, it would seem. The court ruled recently that Europeans have the right to be forgotten. That bad photo of you or news story of your drunk-driving conviction can be erased. In fact, anything, including flattering references can vanish from search results. If you don’t like it, it’s gone.

On closer examination, however, controlling your public image is more complicated than first imagined.

First, while the unwanted search results are gone, the original material is not. The court ruled that unwanted results be removed only from search engines. Obviously, the European court doesn’t have jurisdiction over global websites.

The consequence of the court ruling is like having a library in which the catalogue cards from certain books have been removed because someone didn’t like what was being said about them.  The books are still on the shelf and the objectionable webpages are still there for anyone to uncover.

The court ruling does not apply to public persons and rightfully so. Politicians chose public lives and their decisions affect the course of governments. To erase such references would be to erase history. But just who is public and who is private enough to escape scrutiny?  Should prominent businessmen, celebrities, popular citizens, notorious criminals or activists escape from view?

The whole thing is an administrative nightmare for Google who has to process the flood of requests for obscurity. They have the thankless task of possessing the millions of claims.

Then there is the right to know versus the right to obscurity. Do individuals in society have the right to hide information from everyone else? A Google administrator puts it this way:

“A simple way of understanding what happened here is that you have a collision between a right to be forgotten and a right to know. From Google’s perspective that’s a balance. Google believes having looked at the decision, which is binding, that the balance that was struck was wrong.”

As well, the court attempts to fix a problem that attrition would naturally take care of says Professor Meg Ambrose from Georgetown University. Only about 20 per cent of web content can be found a year later because Google algorithms rank pages according to popularity. “How do you hide a dead body?” goes the joke. “On the third page of search results.”

A lot of stuff on the web is simply too boring or irrelevant to endure the test of time (mine excepted, of course).

Lastly, this is the wrong way to go about implementing policy, Professor Ambrose told CBC radio. Laws should be enforced by the executive branches of government not through one-on-one negotiations between private citizens and corporations.

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