The Right to be Forgotten

As we immerse ourselves ever deeper into the digital world, can we really expect to control what information appears about us online?

Tech Talk- Zeid Nasser

Five years ago, a Spanish lawyer took Google to court because he wanted to suppress an old legal notice against him which kept appearing every time anyone searched for his name. He claimed the information concerning a foreclosure of his home in 1998 was no longer relevant and was hurting his reputation. In effect, he wanted to assert his so-called right to be forgotten. In May, a European court decided he was entitled to this right.

The court’s decision has triggered a chain reaction that will affect everyone and everything on the Internet. It means individuals have the right to redact results on searches of their names if the information is inadequate, irrelevant, or out of date.

Since the beginning of June, Google has been inundated with requests from Europeans who wish to exercise their newly-won right to be forgotten. Google said it received 41,000 requests from people in the first four days, amounting to more than 10,000 requests per day. That’s seven requests per minute and the numbers are expected to keep rising. Google is planning to hire new staff just to handle them.

Why did the European court rule against Google? Because it defined Google as a “data controller” under a European law on data protection, which gives individuals strong rights over data that others hold on them.

However, there are many critics of this ruling and various experts who believe it’s just not applicable.

To begin with, the right to be forgotten is hard to implement, as Google could censor its search results in Europe, but users elsewhere in the world could see that information and just send it to anyone in Europe. Additionally, with basic technical know-how or by downloading an ‘unblock’ product, anyone can change their country IP address and browse the web without local limitations (just like users in Gulf countries do all the time to access blocked sites).

Every country, or region, will ask Google to censor different information and the result will be a mishmash of censored and uncensored information that will not provide blanket global removal of information.

Some countries may even take an opposite stance, demanding that the right to public freedom of information prevents Google from removing any information from the public record. Simply, any person should be able to know anything about anybody if it’s a public record.

Even if it were possible to force search companies, or social networks, to erase the past, it could do more harm than good. It would prevent users from discovering the inconvenient truths about those who would like their past covered up.

The Internet is now the depository of human history, but it’s not just about celebrities and public figures. It takes data-basing to a whole other level of personalized data, covering every member of society, due to social networks and search engines making every person searchable and identifiable. That’s why the Internet has a long memory, but you’re actually creating it yourself through your real-life actions and your online activity.

Sooner or later, you will feel that some information about you on the Internet appears to be unfair, one-sided, or just plain wrong. What will you do? Can you actually do anything after agreeing to a site’s terms and conditions?

You should take personal responsibility for every service you subscribe to and every piece of information that you post—whether text, photos, videos. The culture of just ticking “Accept All Terms” without reading these terms must end.

When you join a “free” service, realize that nothing is actually free. The service is exchanging the right to use—and sometimes own—your information with your right to use and benefit from the service.

This whole issue of a user’s rights to controlling information about themselves will create all sorts of legal, technological, and moral quandaries over the coming years. As people’s requests pour into Google, you can also expect some ridiculous demands to emerge, like someone asking for all personal history to be erased from the Internet. The notion of deleting oneself from the web is now growing as a demand.

This is the Twenty-First Century. There are our actual selves and our digital selves. Surely our existence in the digital world requires more protection but in a way that makes sense and which is based on a logic of what should and what should not be censored. This is just the beginning of a very long debate that could shape the information age.