Do we Have a Right to be Forgotten?

The final installment of the "Blog Blog Project" from Spring Semester, 2015, comes from UD Political Science junior, Alex Ciolek. Here, he addresses the "right to be forgotten" on the Internet, and what governments and corporations alike are doing about it. Look for more from the Blog Blog Project this fall!

The Dark Knight Rises, the third film in the Batman trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan, introduced a futuristic and far-fetched concept that immediately grabbed my attention. In the movie it was referred to as the "clean slate," which was described as being a piece of software where "you type in someone's name, date of birth and in a few minutes they're gone from every database on earth."

Sound a little too good to be true?

If you believe it is possible, you'd only be half right. The Court of Justice of the European Union has within the past year made a ruling that states, "Individuals have the right -- under certain conditions -- to ask search engines to remove links with personal information about them." This means that search engines like Google and Bing will have to remove some search results from their pages. However, it does not mean that what's published on the web pages is removed, as the "clean slate" from the Dark Knight Rises would accomplish. To do that, Google urges people on its support page to contact the source site's webmaster.

In my spring course about technology and politics, we discussed how technology is viewed as good or bad, and the impact it has on society. After hearing about the "right to be forgotten" debate in class, I tried to look at the ruling and its impact from different viewpoints. The most common view I've found on this ruling is that it's censoring what we see, and is therefore bad. One journalist feels cheated by the ruling when he received a notification from Google that stated, "we regret to inform you that we are no longer able to show the following pages from your website in response to certain searches on European versions of Google." He wrote the article in 2007, and will no longer receive web traffic from google searches in Europe about the topic of his article. I can absolutely see that as a terrible thing, because this man makes his living off of people reading his articles. He makes the argument that censoring his articles through Google search results is a violation of the freedom of expression and of the media.

However, the individual right to privacy also needs to be taken into account. Google announced that a few days after the ruling, it received over 50,000 requests for articles to be removed from search results. Those 50,000 requests may not all be from separate individuals, but it clearly shows that there is a great demand for people who want to be forgotten. One article that really made me stop and think about this issue was one this story about internet memes and people who have unintentionally had their information go viral. Some of these people have had their lives ruined by the publicity. The story mentions one such person who received so much verbal bullying for a video he thought was private, but was uploaded to the internet without his consent, that he needed to switch schools and seek counseling. There are hundreds of sad stories just like that around the web. One thing that worries me is that younger and younger people are using social media every year. Young people tend to make a lot of mistakes, and learn from them, but with smartphones in almost everybody's hands, those mistakes may never be able to be forgotten without rulings like in the EU.

Whether the articles that the EU citizens want removed from Google searches is to hide articles they don't agree with or just don't like, or to hide articles that are "inaccurate, inadequate, or irreverent" as the court ruling deems them necessary to be removed, I have no idea. However, we shouldn't be so quick to judge the ruling without knowing more about what exactly is being removed. How can we judge people for wanting their own "clean slate" without knowing their circumstances? We should take a lesson from my university class and weigh the "goods and bads" of the right to privacy and the freedoms of expression and the media before forming our own conclusions.