As the amount of information we share online grows along with the data that gets collected -- with or without our permission -- there is a growing call for more online privacy protection, both in the US and Europe.
But the European movement is going far beyond the notion of "Do Not Follow" and is pursuing the "right to be forgotten."
What this boils down to is that you can erase your Internet tracks forever. While such a notion might sound attractive on some level, the implications of erasing the historical record could have serious unintended consequences.
It's a complex idea that you might either accept or reject immediately, depending on your take. Peter Fleischer, who happens to be Google's Privacy Counsel in Europe, wrote a fascinating post about this the other day (making it clear he was not representing Google in this instance). For Fleischer, anyone who has considered codifying such a right into law hasn't thought through the implications. He writes: "Privacy is far more elastic [than defamation claims, which require proof that statements are not true], because privacy claims can be made on speech that is true."
To be honest, as a journalist, that's a notion I find chilling.
Imagine that Richard Nixon’s heirs decided he had a right to remove all references to his role in Watergate from the Internet because Nixon had a right to be forgotten. Imagine that people who had committed war crimes decided this. Where do you draw the line -- at pedophiles? Murderers?
In fact, France has introduced legislation called "un chartier sur le droit a l'oubli" (a charter on the right to be forgotten -- note this post is in French). What's more, in a case in Spain last year, a Spanish court asked Google to remove specific data on a person, effectively altering the record on this individual's actions.
Yet there are instances where you wonder if a person should have certain information be forgotten. How many of us want our youthful indiscretions held against us for all time? Consider a teen arrested for a petty crime like shoplifting. Should that appear in Google forever, long after the individual paid whatever debt was required by law? Should every drunken college party come back to haunt every one of us forever?
Let's say for the sake of argument, however, that you agree that some data should be erased. It's not that simple to remove data on the Internet once it's out there.
If you've ever tried to remove something, you know what I'm talking about. Last year, a friend wrote a post on her blog criticizing actress Angelina Jolie. It seemed innocuous enough, but she was soon under attack from rabid Jolie fans who felt the need to defend Jolie by verbally assaulting the writer. My friend grew so upset by the tone of the comments that she made the decision to remove the post from her blog.
She soon discovered that it was next to impossible to delete all traces of it, however, because it showed up in Google's cache in spite of not appearing anymore on her blog. It's also entirely possible that people copied the contents and emailed it to one another, or that a Jolie fan posted large chunks of the post (or even the entire thing) on a fan blog.
Eventually, my friend relented and put the post back up and just ignored the comments.
But it's an object lesson in just how difficult it is to really delete anything on the Internet. People with or without permission copy your content to other sites. There's really no way to remove every trace of anyone on the Internet, even if there were a law in place requiring it.
But whether you can delete the content is not really the point. The real question is: Should you? And if you do, does this amount to censorship?
I tend to come down on the side of letting the record stand (unless that record is actually wrong).
There are no easy answers, but simply saying that a person has a right to be removed from databases strikes me as a naïve notion at best, and given the implications for historical accuracy and free speech in general, I'm inclined to let the Internet be, warts and all.
— Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist, blogger, FierceContentManagement editor, and contributing editor at EContent magazine.