Right to Know vs. Right to be Forgotten

A look at the recent updated to Google's 'Right to be Forgotten' legislation worldwide.

‘Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper’ or at least that used to be the case. Today we are each just a click away from accessing a wealth of information on any topic, making news evergreen. But what about that ‘less than flattering’ image/article/blog post/video of you that someone else posted online? Is that evergreen too?

As the primary gatekeeper of online information, Google has the responsibility to manage what information they promote as useful, and which pieces should be shuttled off to your local ‘chippy’. They make this decision based on a number of criteria, including one which is currently making headlines, the ‘Right to Be Forgotten’.

What is the ‘Right to be Forgotten’?

Originally passed in May 2014, this court ruling from the EU allows users the opportunity to have outdated or irrelevant personal information removed from Google’s search results. Put briefly, if you can prove that a link displayed by Google points to unhelpful personal information about you, then you can ask to have it removed from your regional Google site so that no one else can find it through the search engine. That’s not to say that the information will be taken offline, it will simply make it more difficult for users to find. So those embarrassing photos uploaded of you at your last work night out may not permanently tarnish your reputation after all? Googling your name might actually bring up your CV instead of that ‘dance’ you invented?

Hooray for the preservation of personal dignity!

Over the past year, Google’s European headquarters alone have received more than one million removal requests, with ‘invasion of privacy’ cited as the primary reason for the request in over 58% of cases. However, to date over 70% of these requests have been refused by Google.

Our ‘Right to Know’

So, apart from the relatively low success rate of getting these links removed, is there any reason to leave your personal information/ dance moves online for the world to see?

Well, yes.

Some have argued that deleting links to information is effectively censoring the internet, something that contradicts the ‘freedom of speech’ enjoyed online. Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, likened each person’s internet presence to their personal history: “history is a human right and one of the worst things that a person can do is attempt to use force to silence another”.

Arguments such as these have managed to keep the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ from being rolled out in the US. A case was recently put forward in San Francisco by someone looking to get links to their personal information deleted from Google.com. Judge Ernest Goldsmith ruled in favour of Google, stating that Google’s search results are ‘protected under free speech laws’ in the First Amendment to the American Constitution.

Logistical Nightmare

The arguments for and against are very clear. Nobody wants their embarrassing history to taint their future opportunities, but having the ability to scrub clean a person’s online presence sounds a little too ‘Orwellian’. However, it seems that this may be a mute point, as we may have already overestimated our ability to control the flow of information promoted on Google’s SERPs.

As we mentioned earlier, our ‘right to be forgotten’ only extends as far as our native Google site. i.e. UK citizens can only apply to have links deleted from Google.co.uk, Spanish citizens are limited to applications to Google.es and so on, which is fine, as long as you don’t mind that that same links, that you somehow managed to get delisted on your local Google site, will still be readily available through every other Google site, every other Yahoo site, every other Bing site etc. Therefore, this new legislation may simply be a case of ‘too little, too late’.

Earlier this month the head of the French regulator CNIL, Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, stated that “for delisting to be effective, it must be world-wide”. Defending their location based policies, Google have argued that amending only regional sites helps to stop the precedent forming that “one region can set global rules for the internet”.

Having universally enforced ‘right to be forgotten’ laws sounds like the only way to ensure that those unwanted links to your embarrassing high school yearbook photos will be erased completely. But if this is the case, then who’s delisting policy would/ should be adopted as the ‘global standard’? The US has made their case very clear, not deleting any links at all; EU countries are a little more lax on the issue, only delisting sites if a decent argument is made. However some countries are going even further than that.

Russia’s New Policy

On Friday 3rd July, Russia’s government approved their own version of the ‘right to be forgotten’ law. However, this version was far broader in scope than the EU equivalent passed last year. Under the current EU legislation, no public figure or politician is allowed to make any deletion requests, ensuring that Google’s search results do not become a tool for propaganda or silencing criticism. The new Russian ‘right to be forgotten’ law does not include any such restriction. Therefore, once passed by President Vladimir Putin, the law will force Google to update their Russian site to potentially delist any search result that paints a government or public figure in a negative light. The update is expected to go into effect in January 2016.

Hearing this news, I am reminded of Jimmy Wales’s words against any such censorship of Google’s SERPs. Wales argued that taking up Google’s offer to ‘forget’ us is “deeply immoral” and will only result in creating an internet that is “riddled with memory holes”. These updates have shown how easily this ‘line in the sand’ can be redrawn, allowing for the possibility of dangerous biases in the SERPs to develop and causing a concern for users worldwide.

Conclusion

So where does this leave us? We began by questioning how ‘evergreen’ our personal information is online. In short, it’s pretty damn green, for now that is. Google’s legislation allows anyone the opportunity to get their personal information wiped from their SERPs. However, the limitations of the service, coupled with the moral implications stops it from being as comprehensive as it could be.

The argument of online privacy vs. freedom of speech is a delicate balancing act which could be in danger of tipping over due to some recent developments. Russia’s policies go far beyond the scope originally intended for this legislation and could be a warning of the shape of things to come. ‘Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper’. That’s how we started, but it turns out that it’s actually not that simple. Instead, we now have a choice of coining one of two new phrases:

1.‘Today’s news never actually happened’

or

2.‘Today’s news is tomorrow’s news, unless your local chip shop objects’

For all updates on delisting legislation, and for all things marketing, check out our blog here.

Cover image courtesy of zd.net