Europeans Continue To Push For 'Right To Be Forgotten'; Claim Americans 'Fetishize' Free Speech

from the let's-try-this-again... dept

Back in November, we wrote about a proposal making the rounds in the EU for an official "right to be forgotten" law, which would allow people to demand that any website delete all info about a person at their request. As we've noted, some European countries already have something like this, such as in Germany, where a convicted murderer tried to force Wikipedia to remove his name in a discussion about the murder. France has been arguing for such a law for a while as well.

Over at The Atlantic, there's a story with the expected storyline about how Europe loves privacy, while the US loves free speech, and this whole "right to be forgotten" issue is where those two cultures clash. While there is some truth to the stereotypical claims about the US believing free speech trumps all and Europe valuing privacy much more, I still think this story line is not accurate for two important reasons.

First, I still don't believe the "right to be forgotten" is truly a privacy issue at all. A privacy issue is about protecting private information. The right to be forgotten is the opposite of that. It's asking websites to delete public information, including factual news information about a person. That's not about privacy. That's about pretending public information is really private.

And that brings up the second point, which is that the concept of a "right to be forgotten" isn't just silly because of the free speech restriction, but because it's impossible. You might be able to force some information off of some websites, but it will simply be impossible to erase that information completely -- especially on a global internet, where large segments of that internet will not exist in countries that abide by any "right to be forgotten." But even beyond that, once information is public and in people's brains, it's impossible to force them to forget it and equally impossible to realistically tell them they cannot ever speak about it again. From a sheer logistical angle, the whole idea of a "right to be forgotten" is so laughable that it's a waste to even seriously consider implementing such a thing.

Of course, that's probably why some politicians will still try to do exactly that.

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  1. icon
    jilocasin (profile), 4 Feb 2011 @ 11:57am

    It's more a case of Stigma and Expungement

    I think there are two similar but distinct cases involved here.

    The internet never forgets, or so some say. Things that previously would never have been recorded, now are. Sometimes by friends or ourselves (the ill-conceived Face book picture of you after the party), other times by the near ubiquitous surveillance we live through daily. Or alternatively, if you wanted to know something you had to seek it out, visit the courthouse in person. Things that were inconvenient to access were in practice private information. No one was going to transcribe every single court infraction by hand. If you weren't important then most people wouldn't take the time to look you up. So in practice peoples lives were a lot more private than they are now.

    This goes hand in hand with the legal concept of expungement. That if you served your time, or were later found innocent, then your record would be expunged. It would be like it never happened. That's easy to do when the only records concerning an incident reside in musty courthouse documents. Expungement is like annulment for your legal past. A divorce means that your were married but now you're not, an annulment means the marriage never happened. An expungement means that your conviction never happened, otherwise you are just another ex-con.

    Since information is soo easy to come by companies make it their business to vacuum up everything on everybody cause it cheap and you never know who you might be able to sell it to someday. Now everything that you do in public, every somewhat public record that some one has on you, every recorded transaction is liable to haunt you for the rest of your life and beyond.

    I think that the only way we can deal with this is to:

    First, prohibit people from amassing so much information on everyone. What information you do have to compile on someone, has to be limited to what is _actually_needed_ to accomplish the transaction at hand. Your utility company doesn't need your SS#, your religious preference or the number of people living in your home to sell you electricity. If it isn't collected, then it doesn't exist. If it doesn't exist, then you don't have to order it erased.

    Second, organizations that amass this information about you should have a legal requirement to ensure that it's accurate, to safeguard it from others, and to delete it when requested. If there's only one copy of that information, it's much easier to get rid of it, especially it it isn't needed anymore.

    Third, there has to be real penalties for failing points one and two. Monetary penalties that are large enough to be more than the cost of doing business. Shutting down companies and yes jail time for egregious violators.

    Finally there has to be a change in the stigma in having done certain things. Some of it will have to be legislated (such as the restrictions against people with criminal records, since eventually we will _all_ have criminal records) and some of it will have to societal. At one time being an unwed mother carried a real and debilitating stigma, now it isn't that bad.

    In some ways I appreciate the European mindset. We could do worse than to nip the rampant amassing and trading in our otherwise private information.

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