May 19th, 2014
10:42 AM ET

Should we have the right to be forgotten online?

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By Global Public Square staff

Do you have something in your past that you would rather forget? A youthful indiscretion that led to a run-in with the police perhaps? A debt that you "forgot" to pay maybe? How about a quickie marriage one night in Vegas that ended in a quickie divorce? In the Internet Age, these are the types of things that can now live forever.

Except perhaps, if you live in the European Union. Let me explain.

Last week, the European Union's highest court decided that parts of your past have a "right to be forgotten" on the Internet. It’s a ruling that effectively censors search engines like Google. Here's how it happened:

A Spanish man filed a complaint against Google because searches of his name turned up links to a 1998 newspaper notice that mentioned some debts. He argued that this old, now irrelevant information infringed on both his dignity and his privacy. And, on Tuesday, the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice agreed. Google has to stop linking to the Spaniard's property notice, the court said.

Under the "right to be forgotten" principle, if you live in one of the EU's 28 member states you will soon be able to remove links to your past. When you make a deletion request to the search engines and other content controllers, you have to meet the bar that the court set – that the information is "inadequate" "irrelevant" or "outdated." Rules are different if you are a public figure or if the information is in the public interest.

The landmark announcement has pleased privacy activists, but it has left critics feeling that it's a violation of free speech. As for Google, it found the ruling "disappointing" and is analyzing its implications.

This could be very expensive for Internet companies. For now, it mostly affects just Google – the search engine accounts for 90 percent of web searches in the EU. How it will all work in practice still needs to be ironed out. The Wall Street Journal reports that Google has since received requests from a politician wanting to remove articles about his behavior in office and from a doctor seeking to delete online reviews.

Another aspect of this to consider: we have Edward Snowden to thank for this and similar rulings. The EU is currently overhauling its data protection laws...inspired partly by Snowden's revelations of America's extensive electronic spying program.

The real problem here is this: the culling of information likely cannot all be done by humans. It might have to be executed by computers. Remember Google executes nearly 12 billion searches a month! And can an algorithm really find the delicate balance between personal privacy and the public interest, between what's inconvenient and what's inaccurate?

I would think not.

Now, European courts have historically favored privacy rights, while Americans tend to hold the First Amendment as sacrosanct and American companies advocate for self-regulation generally. But Americans are concerned too – 86 percent of Americans have taken measures to mask their digital footprints, according to the Pew Research Center.

So we will have to come up with some rules of the road to make people feel secure about their privacy. But let's make sure that we don't undermine and erode the things that have made the Internet such an amazing, transforming feature of modern life – its universality and its openness.


soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. palintwit

    Last night while watching an old episode of the Three Stooges, it suddenly dawned on me where Sarah Palin and her Teabaggers get their inspiration. Especially that one with the big pie fight.

    May 19, 2014 at 11:07 am | Reply
    • bristoltwit palin... America's favorite dancing cow

      Mmmmmmmm... pies

      May 19, 2014 at 11:37 am | Reply
  2. ✠RZ✠

    Oh, so now you want the "RIGHT" to be forgotten....? Well tell ya what, FORGET about it!

    May 19, 2014 at 11:25 am | Reply
  3. chri§§y

    Lmao @ RZ ...its faaagadaboutettt! Lol

    May 19, 2014 at 11:51 am | Reply
  4. chri§§y

    And @ twit...THATs the same place the *derp* gets his ideas also!

    May 19, 2014 at 12:00 pm | Reply
  5. stuart

    People do have a right to be removed. For example, someone may have had a picture on FB looking like a doggie. Then, they look better. Now they want the old picture removed.
    Let them.

    May 19, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Reply
  6. chri§§y

    Lmao @ stuart...didnt you read the article? You only have that "right" in Europe and it DOESNT include mug shots!

    May 19, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Reply
  7. stuart

    Yes, Europe chrissy, but in my opinion it should apply world wide, FB was just "For example."

    May 19, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  8. stuart

    I like your ss. Wonder how u do that

    May 19, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Reply
  9. stuart

    Plea§e tell me. And I'll be your friend forever.

    May 19, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  10. stuart

    @my chrissy....(kiss)

    May 19, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  11. chri§§y

    Looks like you figured it out already lol.

    May 19, 2014 at 2:27 pm | Reply
  12. John Smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    May 19, 2014 at 4:33 pm | Reply
  13. Robert Tubere

    Europe wants its people to have the right to be forgotten online? Are they reserving the right to look at contents of the rest of the world that are less than savoury? If you do not want others to see your 'bad' past, you should also be prevented from seeing other people's 'bad' past. In any case, the correct way to have your 'bad' past forgotten is to not create that 'bad' past in the first place. Or is this bit of common sense exclusive only to non-EU countries?

    May 19, 2014 at 10:55 pm | Reply
  14. chri§§y

    Lmao very good point @ Robert! But ya know some things ya do when yourf young and dumb? I think thats kinda what they are referring to for the most part!

    May 19, 2014 at 11:26 pm | Reply
  15. chri§§y

    Forgive the spelling error.

    May 19, 2014 at 11:27 pm | Reply
  16. j. von hettlingen

    Apparently even if Google removes certain links from search results, the content that had been posted online doesn't disappear. It is still available to those, who know where to look. So the internet doesn't forget anything that has been put online.

    May 20, 2014 at 7:47 am | Reply
  17. Odoh sebastine.

    Not to worry. A clear conscience fears no accusation. Why should you b scared. When this policy is duely effected it will dig dip into googles pocket. But as the economist that i am i see opportunity in every thing. Google can make some good cash 4rm this policy. If u want to forget ur past, u should drop some money.....nigerian

    May 20, 2014 at 8:13 am | Reply
  18. Odoh sebastine.

    Wow so there are 12 billion search 4 google alone in just a month. I think i need to lauch my own search engienge jesus.....nigerian

    May 20, 2014 at 8:16 am | Reply
  19. please remember me forever!

    some people go to great lengths to make sure they are never forgotten. they donate huge sums of money to charitable trusts or make sure their name is on a building or bridge. now that the internet has shown an amazing digital ability to never forget all your digital footprints, it is incredibly amusing that some people are determined to make the internet "forget" their bad deeds and actions. almost the exact opposite of the guys trying to get their name remembered for posterity............ ha!ha!ha!

    May 20, 2014 at 3:19 pm | Reply
  20. please remember me forever!

    almost like, they are suing to be forgotten! please don't remember what an ass&hole I've been or what a jer%k I've been, in the past............ funny stuff............ :)

    May 20, 2014 at 4:39 pm | Reply
  21. krehator

    The choices you make come with consequences sometimes. Welcome to life.

    May 23, 2014 at 8:56 am | Reply
  22. required

    A few corrupt bankers want to control everybody. There is some token resistance against this in euope and the rest of the world. It is easier not to think about how your whole life can be subject to surveillance at any time, and you won't know when it is happening or who is doing it.

    May 28, 2014 at 6:37 am | Reply

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