We should be thankful the ECJ is sticking up for our ‘right to forget’

On the face of it this sounds like a recipe for disaster, giving the rich and powerful a legal framework to help them airbrush their reputation online

 

Share

Imagine living your life without ever being able to forget. All the moments of happiness and elation you’d ever experienced would be instantly accessible– but so would every painful and awkward memory, from minor social embarrassments and up.

It’s this metaphor that is often used to promote the digital ‘right to forget’,  advocates of which argue that the internet has created a permanent digital trail of information that each of us is forced to drag through life – a record that can be emotionally painful or damaging to our character. In an age when our first reaction to an unknown name is to Google them, the information that appears on that first page can make or break someone’s reputation.

In response to these worries the EU yesterday ruled that Google is now “obliged to remove links to web pages” when the information contained on them is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant.” Individuals can complain to the search giant and if there’s “sufficient reason” the tech giant will have to remove results from their search.

For people who worry about our ‘digital record’ the ruling is a big step forward, but others have argued that the decision could be incredibly damaging for society with one freedom of speech group, Index on Censorship, even comparing the removal of search results to “marching into a library and forcing it to pulp books".

The crux of the problem is that the information that can be removed doesn’t actually have to be illegal – it just has to have annoyed someone. Indeed, the incident that triggered the ruling wasn’t some massive scandal but a relatively domestic case involving a Spanish lawyer named Mario Costeja González who didn’t want people to know he’d had to sell his house to pay off a debt in 1998.

On the face of it this sounds like a recipe for disaster, giving the rich and powerful a legal framework to help them airbrush their reputation online. But the ruling does include a number of provisions to stop this happening. For a start the information itself isn’t actually removed from the web - just the link that appears in Google’s search results (that same link can also be passed around via email or Twitter) and any data that is deemed of “preponderant interest” to the public is exempt from removal.

Unfortunately these rules only create more problems: Google’s monopoly on search means that removing a link from their site is tantamount to censorship and the definition of ‘public interest’ is so vague that there are bound to be borderline cases that no-one can agree on. Google itself is objecting to the ruling in the strongest terms – although this is as much to do with its unwillingness to spend money in public arbitration as it is in the defence of high-minded ideals.

Some have argued that we should forget the whole thing, that our technological norms are already shifting away from the permanent to the transient as software like self-deleting messaging app Snapchat means that we don’t have to worry about our ‘records’ in the first place. This might be true when it comes to the latest social media crazes, but this sort of approach to data is going to take years to gain enough credibility for wider adoption – it’s not something that we can rely on.

In the mean time we certainly need rulings like this one to at the very least promote the idea that, as ordinary individuals, we should be aware of our online records. The implementation will certainly need to be scrutinized to ensure that it doesn’t create more problems than it solves (and it’s guaranteed to create problems) but this doesn’t mean that the whole concept should be dismissed out of hand. Ordinary citizens ought not to have to live in a state of unreasonable fear about their own name.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform