The Past (forgotten-swallowed) by Alfred Kubin, 1901, via wikiart.org, Public Domain
I don’t think the vast majority of us want to be forgotten. We do a lot of things to try to be remembered: take photos; post things on the Internet; have a headstone with our name.
But there is this idea that what we do online never goes away, and some people would like that part of their life to be forgotten.
Many people have posted things online they regret, so they delete it, but somehow it still exists. Celebrities and politicians have learned that by the time you delete that stupid tweet the damage is done and other people have already copied and taken screenshots of it.
For younger people who have grown up with the internet and social media, the possibility of stupid/embarrassing/incriminating content is much higher since the filters in their brains had not matured. A friend who deleted her Facebook profile recently discovered that friends were getting friend requests from her and that in a search her Facebook profile link still shows up.
Plus, there is “public information” about you online: phone numbers, addresses where you have lived and currently live, that DUI you got, and that political candidate donation you made.
Do we have a right to be forgotten online? The “right to be forgotten” is something that is taken more seriously outside the U.S. It has been put into practice in the European Union.
Google has won a legal case in the European Union over the so-called “right to be forgotten,” a concept that allows people in Europe to request the removal of old news from the internet which might be harmful to their reputations or is just very embarrassing. The EU’s highest court has ruled that while Google must delist links in Europe, it doesn’t have to do the same globally.
It’s not an easy issue to decide. Your first thought might be that, of course, we should have the right to delete our own posts online. And what about content about us posted by others? There are immediate collisions between the right to freedom of expression and how it crosses with the right to privacy. Do you want politicians to be able to scrub their online history of things they said and regret, or views they once had and have altered? Would a right to be forgotten diminish the quality of the Internet through censorship and revisionist history?
The ruling is a win for Google, as it puts new restrictions on a 2014 European Union court decision that forced Google to use location information to "geoblock" users from seeing links that were requested to be removed. But France's privacy agency, the CNIL, hit Google with a 100,000-euro fine in 2016, hoping to compel the company to "de-reference" disputed URLs on all its search engine domains worldwide, not only those in Europe.
But the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of 2018 said that the public can make a request to any organization "verbally or in writing" and the recipient has one month to respond. Google had argued that the obligation could be abused by authoritarian governments trying to cover up human rights abuses were it to be applied outside of Europe. Google was supported by Microsoft, the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the UK freedom of expression campaign group Article 19, among others.
Do Americans have a right to be forgotten (AKA the "right to erasure")? Not yet.
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