The Internet Never Forgets: Join a Global Conversation on the EU’s ‘Right to Be Forgotten’

As the saying goes, "an elephant never forgets." Illustration by W.H. Drake, from Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book." Copyright expired, image released to public domain.

As the saying goes, “an elephant never forgets.” Illustration by W.H. Drake, from Rudyard Kipling's “The Jungle Book,” 1895. Copyright expired, image released to public domain.

Oiwan Lam contributed to this post.

Everyone has something to hide — but when it comes to the Internet, should we all have the right to be forgotten? Last May, the EU Court of Justice decided in favor of this proposition, ruling that anyone within the EU may ask search engines to remove “outdated” or “irrelevant” information about them from search results. Companies like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have spoken out against the decision, which leaves them responsible for determining what information fits these qualifications. 

Technically, anyone can now exercise this “right” — there is no fee or special procedure limited to people with power and connections. If you are an Internet user in the EU, you have to do nothing more than submit a form with your name and the relevant information about the content you want removed from search results. Since the EU Court of Justice ruled to uphold and codify the Right to Be Forgotten last May, Google has received over 91,000 requests for removals, roughly half of which were granted.

Free expression activists fear that the decision will open the door for corporate and government powers to remove unsavory information about themselves from search results. And the fact that it will be incumbent on tech companies like Google and Yahoo to make these decisions is no small matter — taking this decision out of the hands of the judiciary is a serious blunder in the field of online rights.

The issue cuts at some of the core challenges we grapple with as a community each day. We agree that there are certain kinds of information that deserve some degree of protection. Financial data and information about one’s health or sexuality are easy examples — we think people have a right to keep these things private. But information about a person’s political activities are rarely so easy to judge. Grey areas abound.

A few months after the ruling was announced, Advox China editor Oiwan Lam raised concern about the policy on our community list. She asked: “How can we prevent the potential threat to the online public sphere when such a right is implemented?”

The ensuing conversation revealed that many members of our community fear that the law will undercut the capacity of journalists, activists, netizens, and human rights advocates to gather and preserve evidence of rights violations, corruption, and other wrongdoing that they seek to expose.

Egyptian author Rasha Abdulla, a communications professor at the American University in Cairo, posed the question: What happens when information that is important to the public interest suddenly disappears from our search results? She wrote:

I can just imagine right now in Egypt every police officer with a video on YouTube and every corrupt official who ever said something on video or in a newspaper article would LOVE to be forgotten. The digital archives are all we have to document some of the atrocities that have taken place.

“How will we be guaranteed that lots of inconvenient (but relevant) information will not just disappear?” asked Leila Nachawati, a Spanish-Syrian author and communications scholar at Carlos Tercero University in Madrid. She continued:

[We] will have to rely on corporations deciding if the information is “of public interest”, which we all know is very slippery…The EU has referred to “the need for balance between privacy and free speech”, but unless more specific criteria are listed that's not saying much.

This conversation inspired our community to ask our colleagues — Internet law experts around the globe — to comment on the ruling and describe what impact it has had on policy and political debate in their countries since it was issued. Oiwan Lam and I have sent the following questions to our community list and to several experts who we know and trust:

  • Has there been any local discussion and debate on the implementation of this “right” in your country? Have local courts addressed the issue?
  • How do you think the EU decision might affect the trajectory of Internet policy in your country or region?
  • If the policy were implemented in your country, do you think it would pose a threat to the online public sphere or the public interest? What specific issues might “disappear” from search results if the policy were implemented in your country?
  • Do you think it is possible to find a balance between the individual right to be forgotten and the free flow of information?

We invite experts and interested individuals to answer these questions for us — please feel encouraged to respond to this post in the comments section or to send your thoughts to us at advocacy [at] globalvoicesonline [dot] org. We look forward to publishing them and continuing the conversation.

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