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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.

Filed Under: europe, free speech, privacy, right to be forgotten, us


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  1. icon
    Bill Transue (profile), 4 Feb 2011 @ 12:42pm

    Re: It's more a case of Stigma and Expungement

    Hi, long time reader, first time poster! Now I'm no big city lawyer but it seems to me like we got here is a classical case of TOBAL, "There Oughtta Be a Law" syndrome, and this is the typical application of it; simple, short-sighted, with far-reaching unintended consequences.
    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.
    Who gets to decide what is "_actually_needed_"? You, the company doing business? It's funny you mention utility companies, most don't actually need your social security number, they just use it to do a credit check to waive the security deposit, don't want to give it? Don't, pay the deposit and move on. In fact most information people give out they voluntary do so.
    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.
    First most industries (banking, utility) already have the requirement of safeguarding it and yet it sometimes still gets out, so who decides what safeguarding means? Second, requiring that it be accurate? Does that mean if you register a 'fake' account with the NYTimes to read an article they have to ensure it's accurate? To what lengths must they go? Third why should you get to dictate to companies that they delete information that you previously gave them, and once again who gets to decide 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.
    Most companies already have a very real penalty for failing in both of your points, especially number two. That is their reputation, which can really effect their bottomline. Just look at the scandal regarding Gawker's security breach.
    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.
    So now you want to tell private companies they must be forced to hire criminals? Shouldn't that decision be left to them?
    Have you ever seen that old Sprint commercial for their push-to-talk service featuring a bunch of firemen that were acting as legislators?

    "What should we do with the budget?" to which the firefighters reply in unison "Balance it."

    "Do we want better roads? All in favor say Aye." "Aye." "All opposed?" (silence)

    "Taxes?" "(something unintelligible)"

    "Do we need clean water?" "Aye"

    Then the guy at the podium says "This is the easiest job I've ever had!" Everyone chuckles. He declares "We're out of here!" and bangs the gavel and everyone gets up and leaves.

    As if it were that easy for the government to fix every single problem, big or small.

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