Should The Media Voluntarily Embrace A 'Right To Be Forgotten'?

from the difficult-questions dept

It should be no secret that I’m not at all a fan of the right to be forgotten, which is a European concept, as currently employed, that allows people to get old news stories about them removed from search engines (there’s more to it than that, but that’s the basic explanation). To me, it seems like an attempt to bury history and facts, and that’s dangerous. We’ve also seen too many cases of people trying to abuse it to hide spotty historical records that deserve to remain public. However, the excellent Radiolab podcast a few weeks back had a fascinating episode exploring the idea of the news media voluntarily agreeing to “forget” certain stories. More specifically, last year, Cleveland.com adopted a policy that would let people apply to be “forgotten” by the online news publication. They invited Radiolab folks to be present for one of the meetings where the staff debates applications.

And it was a lot more interesting and challenging than I initially thought. Indeed, it brought back the conundrum I faced a few years ago, in which we weren’t sure how to deal with someone who made a very compelling case why we should delete a story about them. We refused, and were also troubled by the fact that that story involved a federal court case that was then disappeared by the court itself. Courts shouldn’t be disappearing public dockets like that. But, in reporting on that, given the compelling argument that had been made to us, we didn’t highlight what the original story was or who the person was — because of an inherent recognition that this person didn’t deserve any more trouble.

I’m still quite uncomfortable with the idea that a media organization would agree to go back and change stories to remove names (or, in some cases, to delete entire stories), as that is (again) a rewriting of history. Because that can certainly cause lots of other problems down the road as well. But the Radiolab episode is still worth listening to, as it does a really good job of laying out the difficult choices and tradeoffs, and the challenges that Cleveland.com takes on in making those decisions — weighing a bunch of different factors.

In many ways, it’s another side of the whole “content moderation” debate, and how various platforms should make decisions on moderation. There are many, many difficult choices and no easy answers. I still find the overall concept of the Right to Be Forgotten quite troubling — especially when it’s enforced by the government. However, it’s interesting and informative to learn about Cleveland.com’s thoughtful approach to the matter, even if I’d probably come down in a different end position.

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Comments on “Should The Media Voluntarily Embrace A 'Right To Be Forgotten'?”

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70 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Sure. It'll be necessary

Con missed…"It should be no secret that I’m not at all a fan of the right to be forgotten, which is a European concept, as currently employed, that allows people to get old news stories about them removed from search engines (there’s more to it than that, but that’s the basic explanation). To me, it seems like an attempt to bury history and facts, and that’s dangerous."

Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Agreed. Everyone requires a second chance sooner or later (can we PLEASE stop pretending that "requires" = "deserves"?); if you take that away from someone just because you don’t like them, what happens when you need it? Not a world I want to live in.

Besides, it gives hope to others in similar situations to see how other people overcame a dodgy past. Isn’t it better to be an inspiration and a Good Example than a jerk with a lot of skeletons in the ol’ closet?

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

" Isn’t it better to be an inspiration and a Good Example than a jerk with a lot of skeletons in the ol’ closet?"

The "right to be forgotten" was just too big a godsend for every shady politician who discovered the hard way that their past misdeeds would, in the information age, only be a single google search away.

That the EU commission and parliament so wholeheartedly embraced a concept more appropriate for a nation such as china or the old DDR should have had half of the current member states seceding if they’d had any sense.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Multiple parties involved, so no

The problem with ‘right to re-write history’ requests is in the name, in that they allow people to change the narrative of what actually happened, if not eliminate evidence entirely, something that could have effects beyond just the person making the request. The fact that someone might want to bury historical information(for good reasons or not) does not change the fact that what they are trying to bury did in fact happen.

There’s also the issue of precedence, in that if companies start engaging in memory-holing information like that voluntarily you can be damn sure that there will be people/groups arguing that making it a legal ‘right’ is only a tiny step farther, and therefore not a problem. Bad enough the EU is already infected that that problem without spreading it elsewhere and allowing others to use it.

MathFox says:

The ‘right to be forgotten’ should be seen in the context of EU privacy and data protection laws. It’s not a right on its own, but a consequence of privacy laws that say that information about a person may only be distributed with a valid reason. The general interest of the public is one of those reasons.
The importance for the public of knowing something depends on the role of the persons involved, and may change over the years… Sexual misbehaviour of someone as a student may become very relevant when that person becomes a candidate judge (for the supreme court.)

A report on an active court case can be relevant for a few weeks from the time of writing and after that gradually decay into the area of boring writings on legal issues. But the same piece can become relevant when one of the parties involved becomes involved in related legal issues. (Being accused of violating a settlement.)

So, for reasons of completeness of the archive; I am against removal of the original article. But that should not mean that irrelevant articles should be promoted. (Mike, I notice that you do not mention names!)
Google claims that the most relevant search results should be on the first page (under the AdWords advertisements). If the ‘right to be forgotten’ story really is as irrelevant as the requester claims; it should have been demoted to page nn of the search results. But deciding on the general relevance of an article is hard and both computers and humans will make mistakes.

MathFox says:

Re: Re: Re:

Google’s relevance is largely based on the "value" of the websites linking to the page and the number of incoming links. The value of a website is based upon the value of the websites linking to this site and the number of incoming links (recursively.)

So, if you find a number of somewhat relevant blogs linking to an (old) article about a fraud at a company; that article may show up high when searching for the company name. An article that was relevant when the blogs were written 10 years ago, but should be forgotten by now.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The problem is – how do you decide whether an article/issue is still relevant? I might be very interested in fraud at a particular company, even if it was 10 years ago, especially if I’m considering doing business with them. Finding out about that information would allow me to investigate further. Are the parties responsible for the fraud still with the company? At what level were they in the management structure? What was the outcome? Fines, firings, prison time?

Finding that the CEO was responsible and he’s still there might prompt a very different decision on my part, compared to finding that a technician was responsible, he was fired, and the company voluntarily made the victims whole.

And without that 10 year old article, I might never know… but I should.

MathFox says:

Re: Re: Re:

The simple answer: it is written in the law.

The more correct answer: it requires a balancing of recognized human rights.
For the "right to be forgotten" it is a balance between "privacy and good name" of the individual involved and "freedom of expression" for the journalist and publisher. (There are other recognized human rights, relevant in other cases.)

ladyattis (profile) says:

I think the forgetting aspect is something private companies shouldn’t be afraid to employ if it’s dealing with victims of crimes, children, and the like who are most vulnerable to harassment and exploitation. I’m not a fan of the "right to be forgotten" laws since it’s hard to discern what’s a matter of public record and what’s a matter that’s not relevant to said record. For example, knowing the name of a victim of a crime isn’t the same as knowing the demographics of the victim and the crime itself. The name isn’t all that relevant but other facts might be. Aside from that, I think the idea of privacy is going to have to adjust here as long as demand an ever growing system of indexes that are suppose to be accurate for personal and commercial use.

SirWired (profile) says:

Of course it's complicated

"And it was a lot more interesting and challenging than I initially thought."

"I’m still quite uncomfortable with the idea that a media organization would agree to go back and change stories to remove names (or, in some cases, to delete entire stories), as that is (again) a rewriting of history."

Surprise! The real-world is a nuanced and complicated place with a lot of grey areas.

Lets say you’ve been arrested for a crime for which you are unambiguously innocent. (Not "Innocent Until Proven Guilty"-Innocent, but "Mistaken Identity/Frameup/Complete Stupidity by Police or DA"-Innocent) If it’s a lurid crime, it can be extremely harmful to one’s personal life if the first two pages of Google results for your name is a mugshot of you in Jail Orange and "John Doe Arrested for {PMITA-Prison Crime]", complete with a boilerplate statement from the police or DA, and maybe even a video clip of you doing the perp walk.

I don’t think it’s a tough call at all for such a story to be memory-holed from a newspaper’s website. Even if a follow-up story was posted saying "Doe innocent of all charges" (that doesn’t always happen), it might be buried deep-down in the search results.

Yes, the original story is "history", but it’s also something that can cause real harm to the subject of the story.

I agree that a law mandating the deletion ranges from problematic to nearly-impossible. But a private process for such a thing? Sounds like a great idea to me.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Of course it's complicated

I realize that was a joke, however – there is a significant prison population that does not belong there, many of whom are innocent of the charges they agreed to in a plea bargain.

Plea bargains are bullshit and they save us nothing, a case could be made that they cost us a lot but big business needs the prison population in order to compete with China.

Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: Of course it's complicated

I get where you’re coming from, SirWired. What about a note of some kind, perhaps an interstitial, that comes up when the link is clicked, that states that the person was exonerated?

This is why I don’t like the idea of publishing the name of the accused: the "innocent till proven guilty" principle goes flying out the window the minute the mugshot appears in the media. If you look guilty, chances are you’ll be found guilty in the court of public opinion, if not by an actual court.

aerinai (profile) says:

Heard the Radiolab Piece -- Same boat as Mike

I just heard the podcast this weekend and was hoping TD would write something up like this. The podcast talked about some of the nuances of this and I have to say Cleveland.com had a pretty compelling case for why some of these cases should be ‘forgotten’. I’m not saying I would make the same decisions they did, but there were some things that I liked about it.

  • It was voluntary – no one forced Cleveland.com to do this.
  • They annotated that an article had been changed (possibly allowing you to look it up via internet archive)
  • They treated every case as different — no automatic censorship.
  • Thoughtful debate between multiple parties and view points
  • Accepted that it was an experiment and that the rules can change over time.

However, there is no way to ‘legislate’ this. EU’s right to be forgotten completely takes the nuance and debate out of this. That is nice for automating things, but for small platforms that care about niche issues, telling them they have to remove an article because the government said so…. eesh.

P.S. Complete aside — I do think that there are cases when sites SHOULD take things down. A preacher friend of mine was wrongfully accused of being a pedophile (arrested, name ran through the mud, the whole bit) and the local papers covered it, as they do (and should), but never issued that the case was dropped. That page is still up there to this day with no correction or update. That is the travesty of keeping things online forever; sometimes rumors are the bits of history that leave a trail.

TFG says:

Re: Heard the Radiolab Piece -- Same boat as Mike

P.S. Complete aside — I do think that there are cases when sites SHOULD take things down. A preacher friend of mine was wrongfully accused of being a pedophile (arrested, name ran through the mud, the whole bit) and the local papers covered it, as they do (and should), but never issued that the case was dropped. That page is still up there to this day with no correction or update. That is the travesty of keeping things online forever; sometimes rumors are the bits of history that leave a trail.

This is where a "right of response" or "right to correction" could be a valid idea. I don’t like the idea of memory-holing anything – but in a case like this, having a process to ensure that these articles get an update to them noting that at on such-and-such date the case referred to was concluded and the person was acquitted etc. would be, in my mind, justice.

Far less abusable than the right to be forgotten, as well, since all that could be forced would be an update to present additional facts.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Heard the Radiolab Piece -- Same boat as Mike

Seems reasonable. If media wants the right to report on anything then they should have the responsibility to ensure their reports are accurate and kept that way even when they are shown to be wrong. And it shouldn’t take a lawsuit to make that happen. Rather, it should take a lawsuit to seek compensation when media fails to fulfill their responsibilities.

urza9814 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Heard the Radiolab Piece -- Same boat as Mike

I had similar thoughts, but also foresee a pretty big problem with that. What if an article involves two people with two different perspectives of what is the "truth"? Whose "right to correction" wins? Does the newspaper just have to keep updating old articles every time the other person sees the latest correction and submits one of their own? Does the newspaper decide who is right? Are they liable for the effects of that decision?

tkmitchell (profile) says:

Justifying your earlier decision?

You say it is a connumdrum. But I don’t think it is. Journalism has always supposed to be impartial. Report what happened. Now people are deciding that is not so good an idea. Since the internet has changed things people thing the rules should change to. Yes I understand that in the past, nobody knew what was in a docket, or in a paper in some town 2 states over. And people are constantly trying to figure out how we can use this technology only for good. Try to minimize the bad. But I agree with some of the others. And with what Mike has said many times. The answer to speech you do not like is not censorcism. It is more speech. Makeing sure people can post responses to articles and have that found on the search engine as prominently as the original is the answer.

laminar flow (profile) says:

It's complicated

I think in making "forgetting" decisions, some basic journalistic rules should be applied. WHO is posting the original story/allegation and whom are they targeting? WHY are they creating the story? HOW are they selling it or framing it, including how both sides are presented? WHAT are their motivations and what are the repercussions to the creators, or reporters, or target(s) of the story if they’re wrong?

The monolith of "law enforcement" smears people all the time and various media organizations amplify those relentlessly, yet I very rarely see retractions or exonerations published with the same prominence or urgency, if they’re published at all. Bullshit accusations can ruin lives just as much as not warning of or detaining a criminal can. It’s complicated.

Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: It's complicated

Not really. Eye-catching headlines and dramatic images sell copies, it’s as simple as that. These days it’s clickbait. More speech, as I’ve pointed out before, is only as valuable as the volume compared to the initial speech.

As I stated earlier, where someone can get a court order, or sufficiently make the case, an interstitial can be overlaid on the damaging article with the retraction or update added. That way, selective clicking doesn’t damn an innocent person.

John Snape (profile) says:

A couple of decades ago, unless you were a newspaper hoarder or spent a lot of time browsing the microfiche of old newspapers at the library, most stories would be effectively "memory-holed" to oblivion.

Now, with massive databases online, you can find out the smallest minutia about almost everyone, going back decades, even if that information is outdated or just plain false.

I would support a "right to be forgotten" if it only removed information online, and someone could still go down to the library (for newspaper stories) or the courthouse (for legal information) and read the information.

There are a lot of people who made stupid mistakes as young adults, and, years ago, it would be forgotten a few weeks later and not come back to haunt people decades later. With the internet, you can have a minor mistake from twenty years ago continue to destroy your life without recourse.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The counter to that is to research those who would hold your past against you, as they almost certainly have similar incidents in their past. Those who hold minor past incidents against other are usually being hypocrites, while those who are more honest will reminisce about their own misspent youth.

Ho Chi Minhi-me says:

I think the juxtaposition of "voluntarily embrace" and the "right to be forgotten" is causing some confusion – if I have a right to be forgotten it doesn’t really matter whether you embrace it or not. It’s my right. The press has a general rule about not revealing the names of rape victims, and some now refuse to mention the names of mass shooters on the theory that these people are doing it just for the notoriety, but that’s not a "right" to not be mentioned, it’s just a generally-agreed upon courtesy.

So the question really is whether or not the press should extend the general courtesy of not naming people who don’t want to be named, and that raises the problem of balancing their concern with "the public’s right to know" and an individual right to privacy. It would be nice to think they could develop a clear set of guidelines for such a thing rather than simply deciding on a case-by-case basis, but you know as soon as a news outlet begins picking and choosing who gets forgotten and who gets remembered there will be howls of outrage over their obvious partisanship and bias and slanted news coverage.

That’s a general problem with justice and the law – drawing a bright line between what is allowed and what is forbidden is fair in that it allows everybody to know the rules beforehand, but there are times when there may be a good reason for crossing the line and it seems unfair to enforce the line. (Think of a speeding motorist who is trying to get the victim of an unfortunate gardening accident to the hospital before he spontaneously combusts – is it right that he be pulled over and ticketed for speeding when it’s a matter of life and death?) On the other hand, if everything is decided on a case-by-case basis, is it fair or just that one can never know beforehand what is to be allowed and what is to be punished? It’s a difficult question.

Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Eh, I’d be looking at the likelihood of further harm to an innocent party.

RE: the motorist rushing someone to hospital, surely to goodness that would come up in the report.

The public need to step up to the plate, too, voting with their money for the way forward — deny some evil creep the publicity he craves or get his name out for ogling purposes later on. While I’m on the subject, the current spate of true crime TV, which seems to glorify killers, etc., by referring to their nicknames is just sickening. So I voted with my eyeballs by looking at other things. Unfortunately, where there is a market for this kind of thing it will proliferate.

Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Compelling Reasons

I repeat my comment of 2016: we all do stupid things, only some of us get caught.

I’ve also argued that it’s possible to make lemonade out of situations where you’ve fouled up so completely it’s hard to see a way back to where you were before. Basically, explain what you’ve learned and show how you’ve moved on. I’ve had to, given the crap I’ve had flung at me in the last few years.

What I’m saying is, you don’t have to get stuff disappeared from the internet to improve your reputation, you have to demonstrate what kind of person you are NOW as opposed to the person you were THEN.

We all do stupid things sooner or later. Anyone who can’t accept that truth ought to take a look in the mirror.

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