Feb 042011
 February 4, 2011  Posted by  Featured News, Non-U.S., Online

I recently blogged about the “right to be forgotten” and got some thought-provoking comments from commenters. Today, I see a new article on the topic in The Atlantic. Here are some snippets:

… This developing right, authorities in several European countries suggest, would allow an individual to control and sometimes eliminate his or her data trail and allow him or her to ask Google to remove select search results — a newspaper article, say, which once painted him or her in a bad light. A look at recent news events guarantees that this right will only become more relevant in 2011.

On January 19, Google refused Spain’s request that the ubiquitous, California-based search engine remove 90 links. Many of the links Spain wanted to remove included newspaper articles and information from public record, often painting the plaintiffs in a bad light. Google called Spain’s request “disappointing” in its official statement and emphasized that as a search engine, it should not be responsible for curating Internet content. Removing links would be expensive, Google argued in court, and violate the “objectivity” of the Internet search. Last November, the European Union announced data protection goals for 2011, which include “clarifying the so-called ‘right to be forgotten’, i.e. the right of individuals to have their data no longer processed and deleted when they are no longer needed for legitimate purposes” (PDF). The EU explicitly said that users should have the right. It has already been heavily discussed and praised in countries such as France, whose President Sarkozy said last year: “Regulating the Internet to correct the excesses and abuses that come from the total absence of rules is a moral imperative!” France’s leadership at the coming G8 summit also signifies more dialogue, as Sarkozy hopes to discuss the right on an international stage.


Why, then, have our two sprawling yet similar Western cultures responded so differently to Internet privacy?

In Europe, the idea that privacy should overrule free expression is nothing new. Professor Franz Werro keenly highlights the historical difference in a 2009 academic paper and points to a 1983 case in Switzerland. Swiss TV had planned to air a documentary about a criminal from the 1930s. Swiss law, however, forbade the airing of the program — the European court “held that the documentary would unjustifiably violate plaintiff’s privacy right to keep his feelings as a son from being trampled.” Yale law professor James Whitman sees the differing concepts of privacy as a battle between liberty and dignity (here, the PDF of his 2004 journal article).


A right to be forgotten raises practical concerns as well as theoretical. “It’s almost absurd to say we have the right to disappear from public domain,” said Martin Abrams, a policy director with leading global privacy think tank Hunton & Williams. “We’re really talking about the right not to be observed in the first place…. We’ve been focused on symptoms rather than the underlying issues.”

Read more in The Atlantic.

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