What 'The Right To Be Forgotten' Is Doing To The Internet


Europeans Are Disappearing From Google

Only a few days after a European court decided that citizens of the European Union deserve the 'right to be forgotten' on Google, the search engine received more than 40,000 removal requests. And that's only a small portion of the rippling effects caused by the court decision made this past May. Not only are some stories disappearing on European Google results, but the pulls are also gaining heated attention. Is the 'right to be forgotten' a wrench in public-serving journalism? And what does this mean for the United States, who have been having their own grapples with digital privacy and internet regulation? The case was based on a lawsuit filed in 2010 on behalf of Costejo Gonzales, a Spanish man challenging Google to remove links to articles that provided allegedly outdated information on his social security debts. Since his debts were paid, he wanted mentions of his financial history off of Google. The court sided with Gonzales, ordering Google to remove the links in question, while allowing the articles to remain online—just not anywhere near a European Google results page.

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The Data Protection Directive

The court's ruling was based off of EU's Data Protection Directive, which aims to protect "information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person." Personal data such as social security numbers, addresses, and political associations all fall under this protective umbrella. The clincher to this directive is that citizens can demand the "rectification, erasure, or blocking" of information, so long as it is outdated/inaccurate or generally incomplete. Based on these regulations, the court decided that companies can be called to remove data collected legally, if that information is no longer accurate in the present day. [caption id="attachment_1951" align="alignnone" width="800"]Right To Be Forgotten Screenshot Screenshot of a disclaimer that displays on some European Google results that have been edited post-decision.[/caption]

Backlash And The Blow To Journalism

In a twist that surprises no one, the decision has stimulated a lot of backlash. In one way, this ruling shines a glimmer of hope on the possibility that we may have some semblance of control over our digital footprint. But at what cost? Journalists in Europe are up in arms over, what seems to them, like a significant attempt to suppress the press. Besides, it's hard to tell the difference between pulling outdated information and purging some powerful person's reputation of embarrassing mishaps. This blurry line is why some members of European media are calling the 'right to be forgotten' a blow to journalism. In comparison to the blowback from the media, Google is coming off relatively timid. In an article titled "Why Has Google Cast Me Into Oblivion?" Robert Peston, author of a 2007 blog that was pulled from search results after the decision, laments that removals from Google seem clumsy and that his own writings have been victimized by "teething problems." A suggestion that falls in line with Google's own statements that basically imply that they're still trying to figure it all out. But some believe that Google's haphazard process of implementing these rulings is all part of a ploy to undermine the court decision. If so, it's working. By pulling articles that land in the grey area of whether or not they violate the Data Protection Directive, Google won't have to fight; journalists will do it for them.

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Will America Ever Gain The 'Right To Be Forgotten'?

This significant blow to such an online powerhouse coincides with a particularly hot moment for internet regulation. The FCC is still being pushed and pulled from all sides for net neutrality, as the unresolved issue of digital privacy continues to echo into current policy conversations. In America, for instance, 68 percent of internet users still think the country's laws don't do enough to protect citizen's privacy online. So, is an American version of the 'the right to be forgotten' the answer to the loose ends of online privacy? With a nod to our constitution, probably not. “The First Amendment really does prevent this kind of widespread unpublishing of data," Danny O’Brien, international director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation told Time, adding that free speech will always beat out privacy in the United States.  While the decision has made giant strides towards protecting individual online rights, it does, however, affect the internet as an international platform. What was once considered as a space where everyone has the same access to information, has now become contingent on where you live.
Date of original publication:
Updated on: November 10, 2015

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