Right To Be Forgotten: The Smudged Line Between Privacy & Censorship

It’s a tipping point on a global scale.

A gateway to some serious international dispute.

Passed by the EU, the Right to be Forgotten requires major search engines like Google (let’s face it, mainly Google) to provide individuals the option to request removal of their personal information from search results.

To date, Google has received over 41,000 requests, which they have said they are diligently working to fulfill. In ordered to be processed, requestors must fill out an online form, which will ultimately be granted or denied by an online data protection agency—not by Google. Searches conducted within the EU now offer a note at the bottom that states the following: “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe”.

These new measures have been a springboard for action in other countries.

The Supreme Court of British Columbia ordered Google to take down content that infringes upon citizens’ rights not just within the Canadian domain (.ca), but across the globe. This differs from the EU demands, which mandates only information within the EU to be censored.

And it’s perked up other ears, too. The Russian Public Chamber submitted a recommendation to the Russian Parliament calling for the “right to be forgotten” not only iprivacy2n Russian search engines, but American companies like Google and Yahoo as well. China and Korea, who currently have some of the most restrictive censorship laws worldwide, have also jumped on this bandwagon.

The move has also sparked action in the US, where turmoil surrounding online privacy and censorship has come to a head in the past year. From the Wikileaks scandal and Bradley Manning’s subsequent conviction to the US government’s information hacking allegations, the public remains divided on the law, which directly violates the US stance regarding free flow of information and freedom of speech.

Popular online reading like The Huffington Post calls the new “Right to be Forgotten” law ‘dangerous’, a potential gateway to widespread censorship and even a customized, government-run web the likes of China.

One thing is for certain: fear is running rampant in quite a few directions.

Why and how?

Currently the mandate is limited to things like outdated personal records. Big news stories and public records will remain intact.

Yet many question whether scorned political figures, embarrassed actresses, and wrong-doers could soon have the chance to erase their mistakes for good.

To many, that’s not acceptable. It could change the functionality of the internet and even alter the telling of history.

Still other question whether it might be just as dangerous to not allow this kind of elective privacy.

In a virtual space where everything is documented and stored, the ideal of free speech can open a window to surveillance and control of the public. To some, beating the “if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide” drum disrespects the value of one’s right to protect their private life.

Let’s face it: provacy1American culture has often been faulted for idealism and opportunism, for naiveté and a belief that any mistakes made along the way can be remedied ad hoc.

But for an international institution like the EU that was founded in part on the principal of protecting the interests of individual citizens, their priorities remain strongly positioned with human rights first.

In the US, Google operates as a free agent in a free market. It has free reign over nearly anything anyone puts on the web. Once that information has been cached into the system, it’s as good as theirs. Even when you choose to remove it from your website, it will continue to show up in search until Google has reindexed for relevancy purposes—often three to seven days time. Even then, that information is stored in their database.

Given this, censoring information will likely only censor it from the public and from international governments. In the instance of the U.S., it will probably not change the U.S government’s ability to access that information.

So if you’re worried about serial killers finding your address, or public embarrassment over an ill-begotten photo, that’s one thing. It may even protect against marketers collecting your information, like punching the ‘do not call’ option on telemarketers.

But for those who were part of the huge outcry over American companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple giving customer information to the U.S. government? It’s unlikely to do much about that.

And while Google and compatriots went under fire for divulging consumer information to the government, there’s a good chance that they don’t have much of a choice.

While most U.S. citizens are probably unaware of it, the U.S. government has been tracking their every move for years. Programs like Predator, Carnivore/DCS1000, Magic Lantern keylogger, TALON database, Guardian Database, PRISM, President’s Surveillance Program, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 Amendments Act of 2008, NarusInsight –just to name a few- have been doing a good job of that.

It just turns out that Google, Facebook, and the like, are a much less expensive and more effective way to do the same thing.

By contrast, the EU has had The Data Protection Directive (officially Directive 95/46/EC on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data) since 1995, which regulates the processing of personal data within the European Union.

So under what circumstances does that directive actually protect EU citizens? Well, any company or organization processing data in the EU is required to follow data protection regulation. That means that any online business trading with EU citizens would process some personal data and therefore have to comply with the EU data protection rules.

The only conditions under which personal data may be processed are when transparency, legitimate purpose, and proportionality are met.

And even despite this, the truth remains that we may have only scratched the surface on what is really happening behind the virtual curtain. Any information put out on the web faces the possibility of being used improperly.

So here’s a word to the wise: If you have something you’d prefer people didn’t know, don’t put it up on the web.

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