May 30, 2014

An elephant never forgets – but does the internet?

The European Union Court of Justice ruled last week that we do indeed have a “right to be forgotten” on the internet. Mario Costeja González, unhappy that Googling his name pulled up embarrassing stories of now-resolved issues from the past, brought a case against the internet giant to force them to remove links to the stories.

The court ruled in González’s favour – but didn’t stop at saying the search engine had to delete inaccurate and irrelevant results. Rather, it made any results that violate a “respect for private life” or a “right to protection of personal data” ripe for the picking by unhappy individuals.

Alarming headlines scream that the ruling puts us on a ‘slippery slope’ to a white-washing of information, with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales calling it “one of the most wide-sweeping internet censorship rulings that I’ve ever seen”.

But many people are pleased by the ruling. We can un-tag ourselves from unflattering photos on Facebook – why shouldn’t we be able to ‘un-tag’ ourselves from unflattering information on the World Wide Web?

It’s not quite the same. It might be more difficult to link us to the photo once we’ve hit ‘remove tag’, but it still exists and is easily-accessible.

Disputed content on the web, on the other hand, will become virtually impossible to find. 12 billion Google searches are carried out every month. If it doesn’t come up in a Google search, it may as well not exist.

So if someone complains that a search engine result in some way violates their rights, that result will be removed and the information – to all intents and purposes – deleted.

Most of us would agree that a person falsely accused of a crime shouldn’t have links to reports of their arrest hanging over their head for all eternity. In allowing this, though, the new ruling lets someone demand that stories that are merely embarrassing or unfavourable to them be wiped out of existence. These stories may very well be in the public’s interest to know.

Unless tighter guidelines are put in place restricting the kind of material that falls under the ‘right to be forgotten’, we risk forgetting much more than those drunken holiday snaps. We risk forgetting the importance of protecting the availability of information.

By Natalia El-Sherif

Image by Simon on Pixabay


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