‘Right to be forgotten’ is in reality a pipe dream

4 Jul 2014

The European court ruling on the ‘right to be forgotten’ online has hit its first hurdles, as Google meets the ire of publishers such as the BBC and The Guardian. These first tests show the ruling is unwieldy, unrealistic and could wind up being a tawdry farce.

Internet search giant Google has been forced to reverse a decision to remove several links to stories in The Guardian after the newspaper protested the removal of links to stories that describe how a soccer referee had lied about reversing a penalty decision, a 2011 piece about French office workers making Post-It art, a 2002 piece about a fraud trial and an index of pieces by a media commentator.

However, Google has yet to restore links to a BBC article about the ousting of former Merrill Lynch CEO Stanley O’Neal in the aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis in the US.

The situation stems back to a European court ruling in May that gave EU citizens the ‘right to be forgotten’, effectively giving citizens the power to scrub mentions of themselves from search results on Google and other search engines.

Google at the time protested how unwieldy this would be and now the stage is set for an endless stream of skirmishes over censorship as the publishers no doubt see it.

Google has so far received 70,000 requests to take down links from its European search engines.

Why truth matters

The ‘right to be forgotten’ is a principle that senior members of the European Commission are doggedly clinging to. And perhaps naively.

It basically means if you did something wrong in your past, something that embarrasses you perhaps, then you can have it scrubbed from the modern equivalent of the history books.

People change, lives change, and yes, perhaps the person of two decades ago may be a reformed individual, has paid his/her dues, and is now a responsible member of society.

This could be a naïve principle, however, when you consider why people need to search. Why truth matters.

A prospective employer, for example, could be doing a background check on a person who may be about to be put into a position of responsibility and trust, such as looking after children or managing finances. If there’s something in a person’s past that would set off alarm bells but is conveniently hidden online, is that not indeed very wrong? Does the person searching not have a right to know the truth?

Another inconvenient reality of the European court’s ruling is the onus it puts on Google. The internet is very vast, and while Google attempts to manage the world’s knowledge, there are layers and layers and networks such as Tor, for example, where information can be published and trails hidden. Then there’s social media, where a message can be propagated for ever and ever.

For the EU and people of power and wealth to think by taking on Google and hiding a few links that inconvenient truths can somehow be hidden is again naïve in the extreme and potentially dangerous.

Not only does it threaten jobs in the digital media that the EU purports to care deeply about, it exposes people to risks and threats that could be avoided if people could search for the truth.

There could be very genuine reasons to have information ‘forgotten’ if, for example, it is simply untrue, if it wrongly defames an individual.

What the EU Court of Justice and EU Commissioners need to do is come up with a realistic appeals process or system where truth from lie can be established – rather than a blanket ‘right to be forgotten’ that is unwieldy and doesn’t question the reason for removing links.

The whole situation raises a serious question about the right to be forgotten versus the right to know. Knowledge and truth versus those who would rather hide some inconvenient truths from the internet – which is unrealistic, of course.

What goes online, stays online. Forever.

Censored media image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years