How Important is Your Right to be Forgotten?


Google made headlines recently with their refusal to comply with French requests regarding the EU’s Right to be Forgotten (RTBF). France’s Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés (CNIL) has ramped up pressure on Google to remove links from their domain on the grounds that it violates people’s RTBF. Google is arguing that the RTBF law is only applicable to European domains, and is characterizing France’s attempt to expand their jurisdiction in this matter as an attack on digital freedom.

RTBF is a great idea – at least in theory, as this blog post suggests. After all, the Internet is an incredibly persistent medium, and anything posted has the potential to last a lifetime. And as Sean Sullivan, F-Secure Security Advisor, pointed out in a recent threat report, 89% of respondents to a recent F-Secure survey said “no” when asked if they “want to share everything about your life with everyone everywhere, all the time, forever”. So people may put things online, or have others post information about them, that they decide should be removed, and the RTBF is one way to ensure people can do this.

But expanding the regulation to include resources used by people outside the EU is being met with a somewhat negative reaction. Google claims that exporting European legislation beyond their borders will set a precedent for one nation reducing the digital freedoms of another. “In the end, the Internet would only be as free as the world’s least free place,” writes , Google Global Privacy Counsel.

Google seems to have some popular support for their position. A poll following a recent debate on this issue in the US found that 56% of people in the audience were against adopting RTBF legislation in the US. An online poll regarding the same debate was split 50/50, but both polls indicate that not everyone sees the EU’s approach as the best course of action.

But the fact that other people can also post information about you (including very private and personally identifiable information) makes the need for some kind of privacy safeguard clear. Revenge porn, or nonconsensual pornography, is a particularly malicious kind of violation that the RTBF can help address. There have been numerous instances of people – nearly all of them women – having sexually explicit images of them posted online without their consent. This video tells the story of two women who had some very private images stolen and posted online, along with some additional personally identifiable information.

There are entire websites dedicated to revenge porn, and many of them use stolen images or manipulate women into sharing these images, which are then used to extort money from the victims and generate advertising revenue for the website owners.

The fact that something like revenge porn even exists shows the need for some way for people to have information about themselves removed from public spaces. Many social media sites are working to implement measures to ban revenge porn . Google has a form victims can use to apply to have links removed. But the various digital traces these incidents can leave behind can serve as a painful reminder about things best forgotten. And these measures rely entirely on the judgement of companies, and scholars have pointed out that this bypasses public consultation entirely.

It’s also worth noting that accusations of the EU’s law being used for censorship seem overstated (at least at the time of this writing). According to a report from The Guardian, almost 95% of removal requests submitted to Google are from the general public, and have nothing to do with politicians, serious crimes or other high-profile figures that one would think merits public attention.

And this goes back to the idea of whether or not people want to be able to control how their personal information is shared online. This basic idea should be kept in mind when discussing whether or not censorship concerns should trump people’s privacy rights. On the one hand, legal mechanisms such as legislation allow the public to influence how people’s privacy rights can be protected online. On the other hand, there are legitimate concerns about how such legislation can be used to suppress digital freedom and allow group of people to impose their values on others. It’s a contentious issue, which is why we’d like to hear from you, and how you feel about your right to be forgotten.

[Image by Olli Henze | via Flickr]


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