Dear Europe: Please Don't Kill Free Speech In The Name Of 'Privacy Protection'

from the think-about-this-carefully dept

About a year and a half ago, we wrote about how the new European "General Data Protection Regulation" (GDPR) was potentially very problematic for free speech. That is, well-meaning "data protection" folks wrote up the GDPR, but it appears they did so with little thought towards what the impact might be on free speech. So, specifcally, when they include something like a right to "erasure" for certain information, you can understand, from a privacy standpoint why people may want certain data and information to be deleted from certain databases. But bring that over to the open web, rather than private databases, and you're talking about a censorship tool around a "right to be forgotten" system.

To deal with this kind of potential problem, rather than doing the smart thing and fixing and clarifying the GDPR, Europe has left things up to each member country to try to sort things out on their own, and to explore how to set their own data protection rules in a manner that will obey the GDPR but also avoid stomping out free expression. Unfortunately, it's unclear that many of the states are taking that balancing act very seriously. The UK quietly put up a comments request with all answers due by this Wednesday (and, of course, by the time this all gets sorted out, who's to say if the UK will even still be in the EU... but...).

Daphne Keller, who studies these things over at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society has both a larger paper and a shorter blog post discussing this, specifically in the context of serious concerns about how the Right To Be Forgotten (RTBF) under the GDPR will be implemented, and how it may stifle freedom of expression across Europe. Right now, of course, the RTBF applies to search results, but under the GDPR it may expand to much more, including things like Twitter and Facebook:

Applying RTBF to platforms like Facebook, Dailymotion, or Twitter would be a big deal for Internet users’ expression and information rights. RTBF in its current form under Google Spain only covers search engines, and only requires “de-listing” search results – meaning that users will not see certain webpage titles, snippets, and links when they search for a data subject by name. Regulators have said that the RTBF is reconcilable with information and expression rights precisely because information is only de-listed, and not removed from the source page. But if social media or other hosts had to honor RTBF requests, much of the information they erased would not merely be harder to find – it would be truly gone. For ephemeral expression like tweets or Facebook posts, that might mean the author’s only copy is erased. The same could happen to cloud computing users or bloggers like artist Dennis Cooper, who lost 14 years of creative output when Google abruptly terminated his Blogger account.

Expanding the list of private platforms that must accept and adjudicate RTBF requests would directly affect users’ expression and information rights. But it is hard to pinpoint quite which GDPR articles speak to this issue. Is it purely a question of who counts as a controller under the GDPR’s definitions (Art. 4)? Might it be, as I have argued in other contexts, a question about the scope of objection and erasure rights (Arts. 17 and 21)? Do national expression and information rights shape a platform’s “responsibilities, powers and capabilities” under the Google Spain ruling (para. 38)? These are difficult questions. The answers will, in a very real way, affect the expression and information rights that Member State legislatures are charged with protecting.

And what happens if (as always happens) the process is abused and perfectly legitimate content is taken down? That is... once again... not at all clear:

The Article 29 Working Party has said that search engines generally shouldn’t tell webmasters about de-listings, and the Spanish DPA recently fined Google €150,000 for doing so. The data protection logic here is understandable. When a data subject tells a controller to stop processing her data, it seems perverse for the controller to instead process it more by communicating with other people about it.

But excluding the publisher or speaker from the platforms’ behind-closed-doors legal decisions puts a very heavy thumb on the scales against her. It effectively means that one private individual (the person asserting a privacy right) can object to a platform’s RTBF decision and seek review, while the other private individual or publisher (asserting an expression right) cannot. Other procedural details of the GDPR tilt the balance further. For example, a platform can reject a RTBF request that is “manifestly unfounded,” but only if the platform itself – which likely has little knowledge about or interest in the information posted by a user – assumes the burden of proof for this decision. (Art. 12.5)

This lopsided approach may be sensible for ordinary data erasure requests, outside the RTBF context. When a data subject asks a bank or online service to cancel her account, the power imbalance between the individual and the data controller may justify giving her some procedural advantages. But RTBF requests add important new rights and interests to the equation: those of other Internet users. Procedural rules should not always favor the data subject over other private individuals.

And, of course, as we've pointed out over and over again, the more liability you put on the platform for not deleting content, the more those platforms will default to deleting all sorts of content to avoid liability. And that would mean free and open spaces on the web become locked up fast. And that should be seen as worrying for those who believe in the internet as a platform for everyone, rather than just big media companies.

Research and common sense tell us that when platforms face legal trouble for failing to remove user expression, they are likely to remove too much. Claimants consistently ask platforms to remove more information than the law requires: studies say that 38% of copyright removal requests to Google Image Search raise invalid legal claims; Google and Bing both report that over 50% of RTBF requests do as well. But as the studies show, platforms often err on the side of caution, taking down lawful or lawfully processed information. Incentives to play it safe and simply comply with RTBF requests are strong under the GDPR, which permits penalties as high as 4% of annual global turnover or €20 million. (Art. 83) National law should account for this dynamic, putting procedural checks in place to limit over-removal by private platforms. Civil society recommendations like the Manila Principles offer a menu of options for doing just this. For example, the law can penalize people (or businesses, governments, or religious organizations) if they abuse notice-and-takedown to target other people’s lawful expression.

The GDPR does not provide meaningful procedural barriers to over-removal. In many cases, it appears to strongly tilt the playing field in favor of honoring even dubious RTBF requests – like ones Google received from priests trying to hide sexual abuse scandals, or financial professionals who wanted their fraud convictions forgotten.

As various countries in Europe look to put in place regulations to abide by the GDPR it would be nice if they actually considered this stuff. I fear they may not. If you have some time in the next day or two, at least feel free to take part in the UK comment period and hope that they get it right (even if they're on their way out of the EU).

Filed Under: data protection, europe, free speech, gdpr, intermediary liability, privacy, uk


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 May 2017 @ 12:53pm

    the whole idea is to stop information about how governments, politicians, courts, law enforcement, the rich, the famous, when they make total pricks of themselves from being found out and then spread around the internet while allowing those same people to spy on, investigate and then prosecute the likes of ordinary people for doing the slightest thing! this has all stemmed from allowing the entertainment industries to have 'carte blanche' to write their own laws, get laws changed and introduced, while at the same time demanding and getting whatever information they want on any person, anywhere!! all the while they have been doing this, those demanding the various things have also demanded and been given total anonymity, just like the plum who dressed up like a Nazi at a party, then wanted no one else to know what he had done! fucking twat!!

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