“The right to be forgotten.”
Sounds like a sad song or a Nicholas Sparks book, right? It’s actually way more relevant and important than either of these things. You see, the “right to be forgotten” is the right to privacy. In today’s Google-centric world, no one is forgotten–ever. You got in trouble for smoking a joint in junior high and it made the news? Your wife left you to be with your city’s mayor, and the media went crazy? You ran a mom-and-pop store and it went bankrupt? If anything hits the news circuit or has been documented in such a way that there is public access to it, Google can find it. Which means that other people can find it.
I was listening to the news this morning when a story about this right to privacy came on: The European court, in defense of a Spanish man whose home was repossessed in the late 90s, is backing this right and asking that Google amend its practices to allow individuals their privacy. Mario Costeja González said that he has the right to privacy and doesn’t want this unfortunate incident to come up over and over when his name is searched on Google (The irony, of course, is that now multitudes of people will know about his financial issues). Google argues that preventing public info from coming up would be akin to censorship. In a 2012 blog post about the idea of the “right to forget,” Google differentiated between services that host content (Facebook, for instance) and services that direct people to content hosted elsewhere (Google sending a web user to Facebook).
Well, I had to know more about this developing aspect of privacy law, so I went to the Stanford Law review and read this article from 2012 about the right to be forgotten. Turns out that Europe has been championing this right for some time, since January of 2012. The ramifications and potential pitfalls, according to the Law Review?
The right to be forgotten could make Facebook and Google, for example, liable for up to two percent of their global income if they fail to remove photos that people post about themselves and later regret, even if the photos have been widely distributed already. Unless the right is defined more precisely when it is promulgated over the next year or so, it could precipitate a dramatic clash between European and American conceptions of the proper balance between privacy and free speech, leading to a far less open Internet.
With the advances in technology and the global network in which we now live, due to the internet, it would seem that this court case has been a long time coming, in one form or another. As I listened to the news story I thought it made sense that this guy should have his right to privacy, and I wondered about global, digital law and what kinds of thoughts are already in place. When I found the Law Review article, I learned a bit more:
Europeans and Americans have diametrically opposed approaches to the problem. In Europe, the intellectual roots of the right to be forgotten can be found in French law, which recognizesle droit à l’oubli—or the “right of oblivion”—a right that allows a convicted criminal who has served his time and been rehabilitated to object to the publication of the facts of his conviction and incarceration. In America, by contrast, publication of someone’s criminal history is protected by the First Amendment.
This seems totally crazy to me. One the one hand, I want to know if there is a rapist living down the street. I want to know if my banker got in trouble for embezzlement a few years back. I want to know if my doctor used to perform shady, hotel butt implants. So I like that citizens have the right to access this info. But on the other hand, it does seem a bit unfortunate that individuals might continue to be plagued by their past in this way.
So what’s the answer? I think when there is a public safety reason for information to be public–a doctor with a ton of malpractice suits or a pedophile a few blocks from a school (whatever the legal distance is)–the right to be forgotten should apply to certain facets of a person’s life, but maybe not all of them. We all have skeletons in the closet, and as long as they didn’t get there in a bloody murder kind of way, the public doesn’t need to know about them. If they are the result of an ax-murder and lime-in-the-bathtub kind of incident, then perhaps the public shouldn’t forget about them so easily. This is a complicated matter no matter which side of the ocean tackles it. I’m interested to see things turn out for Google–and for all of us.