The Right to be Forgotten vs The Public Interest

Opinion: the right to be forgotten makes a strange exception of online life

Feature by Natasha Bissett | 22 Aug 2014
  • The Right to be Forgotten vs The Public Interest

The issue of the “right to be forgotten” is a complete farce. As a result of EU bureaucrats trying to impose rights on the online world that do not exist in the real world, Google has been forced to play the part of a self-sabotaging censor. It makes the whole situation comically amateurish as Google wobbles between public interest and defending online reputations.

The real world has no take-backs. There’s no Undo button hovering over your head. You can’t reload a past save. There is no time-travel. Life is linear and just keeps going, no matter how much you wish otherwise. In 2010, European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Viviane Reding said, in a Berkeley Journal of International Law article: ‘Internet users must have effective control of what they put online and be able to correct, withdraw or delete it at will.’ This was later expanded to remove outdated ‘irrelevant’ information from search engine results.

The expectation that people have the right to modify past online content, uploaded by them or about them, is imposing something online that isn’t normal in the real world. So, why is there the same expectation that we can do this online? Critics have called the right to be forgotten ‘censorship’, logistically ‘unworkable and wrong in principle’, and ‘airbrushing’ the past.

Google’s adherence to the Right to be Forgotten ruling and deletion of links from search results has spurred The Telegraph in particular to report when its stories are removed. Google tells it that a link will not appear in European Google searches. In response, news agencies are rehashing old news to keep their links alive, causing the so-called ‘Barbara Streisand Effect’ (in reference to the singer inadvertently making the sale of her house newsworthy by trying to keep it a secret). And in a bizarre twist, Google has deleted the links to Telegraph articles which report the deletion of original articles. It’s a strange dance of delete, report, delete, report.

Had Google not reported these deletions to the site owners, would they have even realised? Would anyone have cared?

In the US, there’s also the issue of the freedom of the press and freedom of speech, enshrined in the Second Amendment, which holds that factual and newsworthy stories in the public interest are protected, even if it harms the subject. Stories in the public interest are stories and facts that are important for the public to know, because they may affect them now or in the future. It’s a core tenet of credible journalism around the world.

Google and Bing have upheld this principle of public interest while offering services to facilitate the removal of unwanted URLs from their search results. Both companies state that public interest content, such as scams, malpractice, crime and public conduct, may be retained even if requested for removal. Not surprisingly, reports have surfaced of people in the UK trying to wipe out public stains from their digital reputations, including a doctor and an ex-politician. By the end of July, Google had reportedly received over 90,000 requests from around the EU, amounting to over 320,000 URLs to be omitted from search results. Half of those requests were approved, 30% were rejected and 15% prompted requests for further information.

But some of the more recent deletions have been related to people with criminal episodes in their past, like the woman jailed for running a prostitution ring, a drunk driver who crashed his car, or the arrest of terrorist suspects. There’s the argument for giving a second chance, especially to people who have gone through the justice system, but we can’t ignore the role that Google (and other search engines) play in the way we access information. It would be logistically cumbersome to update all the news stories about people accused, arrested or convicted of criminal activity, but I advocate common sense.

Rather than request to have those links scrubbed from Google, what about instituting a better awareness of out-of-date links, or a kind of digital statute of limitation? Instead of occasionally showing a date next to a result, the results could specify how many days, months and years have passed since publication. Of course, there are these tools built into Google already, but they rely on the user inputting specific information and search criteria, and it seems that people are pretty lazy when it comes to the internet.

Better yet, how about using a bit of common sense rather than making assumptions when Googling someone? Remember what they say: assumptions make an ass out of you and me. Give people the benefit of the doubt that they can change, remember that everyone makes mistakes, and consider that maybe the results were contextual.