Should Internet users have the 'right to be forgotten?'
Published Monday, July 16, 2012 1:59PM EDT
Imagine the ability to delete all digital evidence of an offensive blog post, photos of last weekend’s out-of-control party, or video of a regrettable prank you pulled years ago.
Upon your command, all reference to the material gone would disappear from the originating site, and be hidden from the clutches of content-hunting search engines.
Web users around the world may soon be able to exercise this so-called “right to be forgotten,” the power to selectively erase one’s self from the Internet, thanks to a European directive that argues users should have total control over their online data.
Given the ubiquity of mobile technology, the idea of almost absolute data control sounds far-fetched. But, as The Telegraph reports, the “right to be forgotten” could be implemented across Europe in two years or more -- a prospect stirring much debate.
The proposal to codify this right in EU data-protection law was delivered in late January by European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, who suggested citizens should be allowed to demand the removal of “personal data” from the Internet if there’s no legitimate reason for keeping the material online.
For instance, the “right to be forgotten” permits someone to wipe out embarrassing Facebook photos but does not allow them to scrub an accurate article from a newspaper archive.
Though Reding has insisted the goal isn’t a “total erasure of history,” her proposal has stirred questions about whether the right amounts to censorship and goes against the idea of free speech.
Several European countries have privacy laws that allow citizens to correct or delete inaccurate information, but Reding’s proposal takes those laws a step further -- giving everyone the right to delete, even if the information is truthful.
According to The Telegraph, companies that do not comply with data removal requests could be liable for up to two per cent of their global income.
This puts major search engines such as Google and Yahoo in a difficult position, because although they do not host the offending information, they collect the content and reference it in searches.
Besides, as U.S. law professor Jeffrey Rosen writes in the July - August 2012 issue of The Atlantic, companies such as TigerText already allow web users to make data “disappear,” though not to the extent outlined in Reding’s proposal.
Similarly, for a price, online reputation management companies will monitor the web for any potentially embarrassing personal information.
Privacy lawyer Fazila Nurani of PrivaTech Consulting notes that Canadian web users can currently limit the distribution of regrettable personal data; it’s difficult to erase altogether.
“Once it’s out there it’s very difficult to rescind. Even if you do, it could have (already) filtered through various search engines,” she told CTV News Channel on Monday.
Even with Reding’s EU recommendations, questions about web host liability and personal responsibility remain. There’s also the issue of what happens when someone else posts potentially embarrassing material that involves you.
“When you think about it, the search engines are just hosters of the material, they’re not the producers,” she said. “I think the only thing that someone can do is go after who put the content out there and sue them for putting it out there in the first place.”