The right to know vs. the right to be forgottenPosted 12 August 2011 by Sandy Cosser
Online privacy is a contentious issue. Everyone wants it – except Google and Facebook – yet no one knows how to define it. Facebook and Google have thrown anti-privacy barbs at each other, the most notorious incident being Facebook’s underhanded attempts to undermine Google via “reputable” news services. But increasingly governments are getting involved. Although, it’s more accurate to say that European governments are getting increasingly involved.
Since last year the European Union has been fighting for the “right to be forgotten”, which is essentially the right for individuals not to have any content that contains any reference to themselves published online. It’s an extreme take on the right to privacy that many people, mostly US-based, believe is tantamount to censorship. Only it’s not the kind of censorship that we’re used to fighting.
We’re used to censorship from governments that want to keep us in blissful ignorance of their nefarious activities. The right to be forgotten is a kind of self-censorship with wider ramifications. A very interesting article on the matter that appeared in The Atlantic asks how far this self-censorship should be allowed to go. You might want some photographs of yourself removed from Facebook, Flickr or Google images, but what happens if you’re one person in a group? Does anyone else in the photo have a say?
At the beginning of the year Google refused a request from Spain to remove 90 links from its database. At the heart of the matter was a story about a plastic surgeon who had been accused of nasty things. He was acquitted of the charges but ten years later any search on his name brings up the incident. There are, apparently, no results for his acquittal. Obviously this places him at a disadvantage. But it is news and we don’t have the right to censor news.
Greg Sterling (Search Engine Land) says that a far more reasonable move would have been to ask the publications responsible for the articles to remove them, rather than going to Google. He has a point.
Should Google be responsible for all internet content? Isn’t its primary purpose to respond to queries and find results? Where does that responsibility end?
France’s President Sarkozy has said, “Regulating the Internet to correct the excesses and abuses that come from the total absence of rules is a moral imperative!”
For a moment forget the old fashioned censorship inherent in that statement; how exactly does one regulate the internet? The beauty of the internet is that anyone can put anything on it; all you need is a computer and a connection. You don’t need any technical know-how at all.
How does one regulate it?
Especially when one considers that different cultures, societies and countries define privacy, human rights and regulations differently.
People criticise China’s tight-fisted approach to online information. How does Sarkozy’s vision differ?
At the moment the key differences up for debate are those between the US and Europe.
Professor Franz Werro, a professor of law at Georgetown, says that in the US there is “fetishisation” of the constitutional First Amendment of free speech, which seems to preclude much personal privacy. The right to know is also strongly entrenched in the culture. And, as we have seen repeated throughout the course of history, what the West holds to be true, it goes out of its way to impose on the rest of the world.
Take for instance Sterling’s parting comment in his article: “The EU should tread carefully so as not to create a bureaucratic nightmare where individuals and, by extension, companies could exercise censorship control over what appears about them online and in search results. On balance the “right to know” (especially where entities and public figures are involved) should trump the novel “right to be forgotten.”
A Yahoo news article also looked at the different views held by the US and Europe and cited the New York Times, which, when commenting on the European side of things, said, “Government agencies routinely compiled dossiers on citizens as a means of control.”
Understandably they are wary of any body amassing similar information, even if it is only for marketing purposes.
The article also cited Omar Tene of the College of Management School of Law, Rishon Le Zion, Israel, who said, “An individual seeking privacy protection in the United States asks ‘leave me alone. Conversely, in Europe, an individual seeking privacy demands ‘respect me.’”
High ranking people from Google and Facebook have stated their belief that privacy has become a myth, an old-fashioned concept consigned to the barrel of best forgotten ideas, like slavery.
Personally, I don’t believe that the right to know should extend to people’s private lives. Even to politicians smoking joints and having mistresses. I don’t believe the odd high and sexual encounter impedes one’s ability to make crucial decisions. If, however, the politician is smoking crack or importing women from the Ukraine, it becomes different.
So where is the line?
Where would you draw it?
(Image by By Freies_Internet.png [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)