The Right to be Forgotten: Neither Triumph Nor Disaster?

“If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same”

Kipling_ndThose are my two favourite lines from Kipling’s unforgettable poem, ‘If’. They have innumerable applications – and I think another one right now. The Right to be Forgotten, about which I’ve written a number of times recently, is being viewed by some as a total disaster, others as a triumph. I don’t think either are right: it’s a bit of a mess, it may well end up costing Google a lot of time, money and effort, and it may be a huge inconvenience to Data Protection Authorities all over Europe, but in the terms that people have mostly been talking about it, privacy and freedom of expression, it seems to me that it’s unlikely to have nearly as big an impact as some have suggested.

Paedophiles and politicians – and erasure of the past

Within a day or two of the ruling, already the stories were coming out about paedophiles and politicians wanting to use the right to be forgotten to erase their past – precisely the sort of rewriting of history that the term ‘right to be forgotten’ evokes, but that this ruling does not provide for. We do need to be clear about a few things that the right will NOT do. Where there’s a public interest, and where an individual is involved in public life, the right does not apply. The stories going around right now are exactly the kind of of thing that Google can and should refuse to erase links to. If Google don’t, then they’re just being bloody minded – and can give up any claims to be in favour of freedom of speech.

Similarly, we need to be clear that this ruling only applies to individuals – not to companies, government bodies, political parties, religious bodies or anything else of that kind. We’re talking human rights here – and that means humans. And, because of the exception noted above, that only means humans not involved in public life. It also only means ‘old’, ‘irrelevant’ information – though what defines ‘old’ and ‘irrelevant’ remains to be seen and argued about. There are possible slippery slope arguments here, but it doesn’t, at least on the face of it, seem to be a particularly slippery kind of slippery slope – and there’s also not that much time for it to get more slippery, or for us to slip down it, because as soon as the new data protection regime is in place, we’ll almost certainly have to start again.

We still can’t hide

Conversely, this ruling won’t really allow even us ‘little people’ to be forgotten very successfully. The ruling only allows for the erasure of links on searches (through Google or another search engine) that are based on our names. The information itself is not erased, and other forms of search can still find the same stories – that is, ‘searches’ using something other than a search engine, and even uses of search engines with different terms. You might not be able to find stories about me by searching for ‘Paul Bernal’ but still be able to find them by searching under other terms – and creative use of terms could even be automated.

There already are many ways to find things other than through search engines – whether it be crowdsourcing via Twitter or another form of search engine, employing people to look for you, or even creating your own piece of software to trawl the web. This latter idea has probably occurred to some hackers, programmers or entrepreneurs already – if the information is out there, and it still will be, there will be a way to find it. Stalkers will still be able to stalk. Employers will still be able to investigate potential employees. Credit rating agencies will still be able to find out about your ancient insolvency.

…but ‘they’ will still be able to hide

Some people seem to think that this right to be forgotten is the first attempt to manipulate search results or to rewrite history – but it really isn’t. There’s already a thriving ‘reputation management’ industry out there, who for a fee will tidy up your ‘digital footprint’, seeking out and destroying (or at least relegating to the obscurity of the later pages on your search results) disreputable stories, and building up those that show you in a good light. The old industry of SEO – search engine optimisation – did and does exactly that, from a slightly different perspective. That isn’t going to go away – if anything it’s likely to increase. People with the power and knowledge to be able to manage their reputations will still be able to.

On a slightly different tack, criminals and scammers have always been able to cover their tracks – and will still be able to. The old cat-and-mouse game between people wanting to hide their identity and people wanting to uncover those hiding them will still go on. The ‘right to be forgotten’ won’t do anything to change that.

But it’s still a mess?

It is, but not, I suspect, in the terms that people are thinking about. It will be a big mess for Google to comply, though stories are already going round that they’re building systems to allow people to apply online for links to be removed, so they might well already have had contingency plans in place. It will be a mess for data protection agencies (DPAs), as it seems that if Google refuse to comply with your request to erase a link, you can ask the DPAs to adjudicate. DPAs are already vastly overstretched and underfunded – and lacking in people and expertise. This could make their situation even messier. It might, however, also be a way for them to demand more funding from their governments – something that would surely be welcome.

It’s also a huge mess for lawyers and academics, as they struggle to get their heads around the implications and the details – but that’s all grist to the mill, when it comes down to it. It’s certainly meant that I’ve had a lot to write about and think about this week….

 

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6 thoughts on “The Right to be Forgotten: Neither Triumph Nor Disaster?

  1. It is an embarrassing and clueless attempt to regulate information in a way that doesn’t work, by people who don’t understand it. Just like the cookie fiasco. These blunders make EU legislators collectively look like idiots and detract energy and credibility from digital rights efforts that have merit. Such as scaling back overbearing copyright laws, for instance.

    Who is even going to listen to EU arguments on copyright or anything else that matters if we’ve just passed the cookie law and this one?

    • The cookie law and this ruling are quite different. In the cookie case, a law was written that specifically targets a particular technology.
      In this case a ruling was made by applying an abstract principle from an older piece of (data protection) legislation to a new technology.
      Arguably the second approach (laying down abstract principles and allowing courts to decide how they apply to specific technologies) is better than constantly writing new laws to target specific technologies explicitly.

  2. I wonder what the source of the claims that we are seeing in the media about “paedophiles and politicians” applying to have links deleted is. Is it overly cynical to suspect Google PR?

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