The Right To Be Forgotten

Four weeks ago, Google won a landmark case in the European Union (EU) on “the right to be forgotten” on the internet.

Four weeks ago, Google won a landmark case in the European Union (EU) on “the right to be forgotten” on the internet. The right to be forgotten, essentially, is the right of an individual to request one’s information to be removed from the internet. In the case of search engines, individuals had the right to request that pages containing damaging or false information about them be removed. The court in the EU ruled that Google should only uphold this right for EU citizens and not for the rest of the world.

There is a reason why the right to be forgotten is so contentious. First introduced by the General Data Protection Regulation in the EU and later in Argentina, the question touches on a major issue in the digital age of information: How much control should one have in maintaining his or her own information? I believe that one should not be given the right to be forgotten on the internet. Sensitive and damaging information has long been available in forms of media outside of the internet. Damaging and false information is not new in our world. However, if the internet becomes open to censorship for the purpose of separating the true from the false, the right to be forgotten has grave social implications relating to censorship on the internet and our freedom of speech.

Advocates for the right to be forgotten raise the popular argument that one would be deeply troubled by allegations and rumors online, and it is the right of individuals to take down false pieces of information about them. They argue that the right to be forgotten protects the right to privacy. Again, forms of false or hurtful information are not new to our world. While the internet certainly increases the scope of its damage, it is not enough to establish a right to censorship. The U.S. already has laws against defamation: Censoring information based on judgements of right and wrong only allows for the possibility of restricting freedom of speech. In a world where censoring information is based on imperfect judgements of right and wrong, as it is rarely the case that there is an object truth, the right to be forgotten can be used to control a narrative rather than correct it.

At the same time, the right to be forgotten reduces the true purpose of having freedom of expression. Information on the internet is meant to spark discussion and analysis on behalf of its wider audience. If one says something online but it is removed due to the right to be forgotten, then the information is never presented to an audience to be critiqued and analyzed. This is censorship, which completely violates the freedom of people to access information. Search engines such as Google can, in the name of following the practice of the right to be forgotten, selectively present search results. In the U.S., the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) ensures the right of the people to query any information from the government that is not a state secret. As one can see, the right to be forgotten can allow individuals to cover up the truth and past mistakes and, even to a certain degree, rewrite history. The public is entitled to know the perspectives surrounding a topic, even if it is not entirely true. Just as how media sites often have different perspectives on an issue, varying information provides greater analysis of reality than one imperfectly determined truth.

Some may argue that striking a balance is the optimal solution. To achieve this balance, they may propose that it should strike a clear distinction between false and unproven information in the law. Ideally this would work: A governing body would investigate information and determine whether it is true or false. In this case, we strike a balance between the freedom of expression of others to speak freely online, while protecting the privacy and personal will of individuals who are falsely accused. However, we can never exactly determine what is true and what is not true. Studies have been done showing that humans themselves often distort reality in their mind, remembering events differently from when they occurred. Given the inherently subjective nature of our interpretation of reality, a crusade towards an objective narrative only widens the possibility for error in reporting and false narratives.

In short, not providing the right to be forgotten is unideal, but we must learn to accept this, as it is the nature of the world we live in. In this era, where misleading or false information can be found everywhere, it is up to the readers to critically analyze the information themselves. The alternative and censored information based on imperfect judgements of right and wrong is far worse.

At the end of the day, we must, as Lawrentians, hold a critical mind and carefully consider the sources of information before drawing conclusions. Moreover, a respectful attitude and making responsible claims as a digital citizen is also important to decrease the risk of attacking and hurting others, which diminishes the need for the right to be forgotten. The right to be forgotten will become more controversial as time passes, especially in the hyper-partisan environment in America today (with politicians and the media making invalid claims and allegations every minute), and therefore to clearly contemplate and realize the detriments that the right to be forgotten brings is evermore significant.

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