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Do You Want To Have The Right To Be Forgotten Online?

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Do You Want To Have The Right To Be Forgotten Online?

We all live in a changing world. As technology develops and the way we interact with one another evolves, so does the way we share information. Inevitably, this will lead to new and unforeseen problems about how we regulate the sharing of that data. New laws will need to be created, and governments will need to figure out how to decide jurisdiction in a world where the internet can instantly and invisibly transmit data across the globe.  Nowhere are these issues more apparent than in the recent European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling on what is being called the right to be forgotten.

The Ruling

At the heart of the ruling is the question “Does a person have the right to request that certain online search results associated with their name be removed from search results?” For example, say that you wore a really embarrassing Halloween costume to a public party in 2004 and somehow photos of you at the party are now the top result when someone Googles your name. Do you have a right to request that those pictures be removed from the search results? The ECJ believes that you do.

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The events that spawned this new and growing debate began in Spain and centered around a man named Mario Costeja Gonzalez. Mr. Gonzalez wanted Google to de-index a search result associated with his name that included the details of a state auction house and a certain tax debt. Ironically, his quest for privacy became international news when he won the case and Google opposed the decision.

The Debate

On the face of it, it seems like the ECJ made the obviously correct decision. Everyone has a right to privacy and should be able to determine how their image is represented publically. Google however has raised interesting and equally valid questions about censorship and the role of governments and private companies in deciding what information the public does and does not have access to. At what point does a person’s right to privacy need to be pushed aside to reveal an accurate accounting of their behavior?

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For example, imagine that the leader of a union requests that a link to a video showing him speaking negatively about big corporations and management be removed from the search results associated with his name. He argues that the video is preventing him from winning employment, the court agrees that it infringes on his right to privacy and it is taken down. Now imagine that years later, the same person decides to run for office on a platform promoting subsidies for big business. Doesn’t the public have a right to see the video depicting the union leader’s former views?

The other important question is who has the right to determine what the public sees and what it doesn’t see? Do we want to live in a world where it is Google’s responsibility to decide what complaints are and aren’t worth honoring? Should we let every complaint that someone has about their personal search results go to court and use up the valuable resources of the justice system? At some point rules will have to be made to determine the answers to these questions, but the recent ECJ ruling leaves that door wide open.

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Food for Thought

At that point the issue becomes one of priorities. Which is more important: privacy or the availability of accurate information? Where does the line fall in terms of public figures versus private citizens? Do you have a greater right to privacy than Brad Pitt? Why? The answers to these questions are not clear and they will require a lot of discussion to reach sensible and enforceable solutions. Google has begun that conversation with a number of public hearings taking place across Europe beginning on September 9th, but it is up to each of us to remain informed and to be a part of that conversation however possible. You don’t want to end up in a new world that you had no say in forming.

Featured photo credit: IsaacMao via flickr.com

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