The Right to be Forgotten vs. the Digital Scarlet Letter, and the world we don’t want to create

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The floodgates opened on the Right to be Forgotten this weekend, with 12,000 requests landing at search engine giant Google within the first 24 hours of a temporary form being made available.   You’ll recall that a European court recently ruled that EU citizens enjoy a Right to be Forgotten, and search engines must honor this by removing links to “irrelevant” information upon request. (Scroll down and you can see my brief appearance on NBC Nightly News this weekend. ) In the piece, I was the voice of concern over suppression of information online.  I have those concerns.  But I have even bigger concerns that the Internet means no one will every again be able to say they’re sorry for anything, and that we will all live the rest of our lives wearing digital scarlet letters.  We don’t want to create that world.

The notion that Google might have to remove links to information has plenty of folks in a tizzy, most particularly technology firms, who are highly alarmed that a government might tell people that consumers have rights they must exert some effort tohonor.  Oh, those silly, anti- business Europeans, you can hear them saying behind every snarky comment.

Just to frame the discussion, it’s important to note that both European law and culture are far more supportive if privacy rights than we are here in the States.  Privacy is actually considered a human right there. For good reason. Europe’s violent history makes invasions of privacy seem like a question of life or death. Imagine what Hilter might have done if he had today’s databases.

The ruling was actually sparked by a case involving a Spanish national who was dogged by a 1988 debt proceeding notice against him which popped up when folks Googled him. Our society has punishments in place for folks who don’t pay debts. We repossess their cars and foreclose on their houses. But today, mistakes come with far greater punishments. The idea that such a mistake might interfere with job hunting or getting a date three decades later should shake your sense of justice to the core.

Let’s get this out of the way: Three decades ago, many such transgressions were public, but “public” rulings stayed locked in courthouses, tucked into folders, there for anyone who wanted to find them, but for a price. There were search costs, and there were actual costs.  Today, people can “run down your past,” private-investigator style, while pouring sugar in their coffee in the morning, from anywhere in the world.  Technology has shrunk the costs by a factor of nearly infinity, while privacy rights have not moved an inch. That’s not only absurd, it’s dire.

The overly broad, awfully vague EU order raises plenty of concerns.  It puts Google in charge of deciding what’s irrelevant and what’s not. That’s not fair, and it’s not sustainable.  A better solution must be found. According to the Telegraph in London, nearly a third of the initial requests related to violent crimes or child porn arrests. That’s a major concern.  Clearly the EU ruling is a beginning, not an ending.

It’s important to recall, however, that U.S. search engines and websites remove information all the time at the request of someone…that someone being a corporation holding intellectual property rights. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act forces firms to remove items like movies if they receive a “takedown notice” from an entity claiming property rights. It’s then up to the entity that posted the data to prove that the takedown notice is unfounded, and the data should be restored. It’s clunky, and it’s often not fairly enforced. But my point is this: If we can create a takedown system for Hollywood, we can create one for you.

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About Bob Sullivan 1356 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.