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Forget-me-not? The right to be forgotten online

James Watkins - Law on the Web

  1. 17 September 2015
  2. Miscellaneous
  3. 0 comments
Right to be forgotten

Over the past 25 years, the internet has changed the world in countless ways. One of the biggest changes is in the wealth of information that we now have at our fingertips – you can look up, say, free legal advice and be presented with tens of millions of possible matches in a near instant, without even needing to rise from your seat.

However, the nature of the internet means that information that reaches it is likely to stay there forever in some form, and this makes some people uncomfortable, particularly when this information pertains to something that they have done or said that they would rather not have remembered.

This is where the “right to be forgotten” comes in.

What is the right to be forgotten?

The right to be forgotten is sought after by those who would rather information or news stories about them not be publicly and easily accessible until the end of time (or at least, for the lifespan of the internet).

For instance, there are a number of people who may have committed crimes or been involved in other embarrassing incidents a number of years ago.

As a result, if a potential employer or another interested party were to Google that individual’s name, they might find news stories about them having been made bankrupt or drunk-driving a mini down a flight of stairs.

People arguing for the right to be forgotten say that it is unfair that their names should be inextricably linked with indiscretions or unfortunate incidents from their pasts, particularly years after the fact.

What has the EU done now?

The European Union, everyone’s favourite arbiter of justice, made a ruling on the issue last year after a case was brought by a Spanish man looking to hide an auction notice relating to the repossession of his house back in 1998.

The EU ruled in his favour, telling Google that it was a “controller” of personal data, and that therefore it was obliged to remove “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive” personal data if the individual in question requested it.

The practical upshot of this is that Google and other search engines must hide certain search results if an applicant successfully applies to have them removed. The search giant has received around a quarter of a million of these requests thus far, and has accepted around 40% of them.

Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the page in question will disappear from the results altogether – for example, an applicant may be able to have a news story about them removed from the results when you search for their name, but the story could still show up in other searches.

Is this a good ruling?

Whether or not you feel it is right to hide old news stories about financial mishaps, criminal acts or anything else someone would prefer stayed private will depend on your perspective.

However, it seems pretty clear that this particular ruling will do little to alleviate the problem.

The ruling puts it into the hands of Google and other search engines to decide whether they should remove results, with the EU providing only vague criteria to discern a valid case for removal from a spurious one.

At a time when the EU is trying to limit Google’s power, it seems counter-productive to provide them with the role of, in the words of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, “censor[ing] history”.

However, at least Google has the resources to sort through thousands of applications to have results removed – smaller search engines, such as DuckDuckGo, are unlikely to have that kind of manpower.

Worse, the ruling seems to ignore the futility of trying to hide or remove information that already exists online – particularly when those who are displaying the information don’t want to play along.

Should news outlets draw attention to delisted pages?

Some news sites, such as the BBC and the Telegraph, thumbed their noses at the ruling by posting lists of all of articles that had been partially hidden, with links to each story.

The Telegraph actually went as far as describing each hidden page in varying detail, and in some cases, even posting a new story on the removal of a particular old story, which of course, would not be blocked by Google without another application.

Of course, this rather undermines the EU’s intentions – aggrieved parties may not see past embarrassments showing among searches for their names, but those embarrassments now appear on a long list essentially marked “LOOK AT ALL OF THESE POTENTIALLY EMBARRASSING THINGS PEOPLE WANT TO HIDE”.

Hiding results about the results

The fact that news websites are able to circumvent the rules is a problem for the EU ruling. Thankfully, they came up with a foolproof new solution; more blocking.

On August 18th, Google was ordered to hide a number of stories about the de-indexing of sites.

Like the original ruling, this further bout of de-indexing seems well-intentioned, but practically inept. There have been a number of news stories about the additional blocking – will they need to be hidden too? What about the stories that are written about that blocking? What about this blog post?

It seems that this problem may just be something we all learn to live with. At this moment, a teenaged future Prime Minister could be doing something or writing something on his or her Facebook wall that will come back to embarrass them.

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