The Right to be Forgotten: Personal Protection or Public Censorship?

Kay Robinson takes a look at the 2012 EU ruling allowing the right to be forgotten online.

Aside from David Cameron’s recent measures to restrict access to pornography, the internet is a largely unregulated space and a bastion of the liberalism of modern technology. Assuming that we’ve all had our fair share of ‘what would I have done without the internet’ moments, whether it’s having used it through your smart phone to navigate a strange city, compiled a poor and last-minute essay or just clarified that yes, Khloe Kardashian is dating again but no, Iggy Azalea’s ass is not real, the internet is an invaluable information source.

With Edward Snowden being a frequent face on the news, freedom of information is a political and social issue that has come to the forefront of media and public attention in the past few years. So we’re aware of how it all works, right? But there are battles less publicised, and measures outside of Cameron’s overt porn plans that have already been introduced. These work in a far more subtle manner, intentionally or otherwise, to regulate modern technology’s biggest and best information source that, which we have come to take for granted. ‘Censorship’ is not a foreign word.

The ‘right to be forgotten’ is just one of these measures. With a self-explanatory title, it has emerged as a response to the widespread availability (read: the internet) of personal information and the ways that this information may continue to stigmatise an individual’s existence long after it is published. The right to be forgotten, therefore, refers to a person’s right to permanently bury personal information from which they wish to disassociate, or deem no longer relevant – bankruptcy, for example.

Differing from the right to privacy, which deals with information not publicly known, the right to be forgotten demands a retraction or disappearance of information from search engines that was, at one time, in the public sphere and is consequently still available – for now.

Not yet upgraded to represent an international human right, the right to be forgotten finds support in the form of the Right to Privacy, but struggles with the interplay of the Right to Freedom of Expression. Nevertheless, the concept was enshrined into EU law in 2012; the European Data Protection Regulation Article 17 detailing the “right to be forgotten and to erasure.”

The Article does not constitute a global framework, meaning that removal of information can only be performed by the specific company from which it is demanded, and will only be unavailable when searched for within EU versions of the search engines (both Google, and Microsoft which owns Bing, have ‘right to be forgotten’ application forms). Companies are not required to comply with requests, but to weigh up the damage to the individual versus public interest in the information concerned, the application procedure is by no means a guarantee to erasure.

But more importantly, the process of the right to be forgotten under European Union law is a privatised procedure in all senses. There is no executive save for the company dealing with the complaint; no system of checks and balances and no appeal procedure. Once information is gone from a search engine, it is usually gone for good within the relevant jurisdiction. A small notification is listed at the bottom of Google search results when something has been removed; nothing more.

Of the information removal requests since 2012 to Google UK and Ireland, 31% relate to fraud or scams, 20% to violent or serious crime arrests and 12% to child pornography arrests. Personally, this is not information I would wish to be prevented from accessing.

Some argue that the enshrinement of the right in EU policy is a step in the right direction, and that it gives individuals deserved control of their own data. However, as The Guardian’s Laurie Penny argues of the UK porn filter, the biggest problem here ‘is not that it accidentally blocks a lot of useful information but that it blocks information at all.’

Index on Censorship are just one of the many organisations who have questioned how the right to be forgotten may affect public access to information and as such interfere with the freedom of expression. The British government are also concerned, particularly with the difficulties of correct implementation, labelling it ‘unreasonable’ and ‘impossible.’

Foreseeing only an increase in this type of censorship, Leila Tretikov, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, forecasts ‘an internet riddled with Orwell’s “memory holes” – cases where inconvenient information simply disappears’. It might not be headline news, but in many ways it is subtlety that makes this sort of censorship all the more alarming.

 

By Kay Robinson


 

[Image Credit: Yanni Koutsomitis]

 

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