The Only Way is Ethics - Is the ‘right to be forgotten’ being used to rewrite history?

Will Gore
Sunday 15 November 2015 17:50
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It is up to  search engines tto decide whether to accede requests
It is up to search engines tto decide whether to accede requests

A ruling by the European Court of Justice last year radically changed our ability to search the internet. The judgment created what has been dubbed a “right to be forgotten”, allowing individuals to request that particular items are removed from the results of a web search.

It is up to Google – or any other search engine – to decide whether to accede to the request. If it does, the material in question doesn’t disappear from the net – it just doesn’t come up in response to the relevant search. But bearing in mind how most of us use the internet, that amounts to broadly the same thing. If Google refuses the request, an appeal can be made to the Office of the Information Commissioner.

When a piece is de-listed by Google, the relevant publisher – potentially a news outlet such as The Independent – is informed. But we are not told who has requested the removal, nor the reason for the decision. Even if you accept the premise that a person has a right to have aspects of their published past forgotten (which I’m not sure I do), the process for achieving it is opaque and ultimately unsatisfactory.

For a publisher which regards its website as an important record, there is an increasing sense that the value of our archive is being undermined by forces outside our control. This is why we have taken the decision to publish on our site this week a list of those articles – 64 in total – which have been subject to successful “right to be forgotten” requests. This does not mean they will miraculously reappear in Google searches, but it will allow readers who are interested to find them more easily HERE at independent.co.uk.

We have not taken this step lightly. After all, in the absence of information about who has made the requests and why, it is impossible to gauge whether we would be sympathetic to their cases. While we are reluctant to remove content from our website, there are rare circumstances in which we do so – or where we might agree to protect a person’s identity. Some of the articles in our list of 64 might fall into that category. If individuals featured in them wish to contact us directly to ask us to reconsider our stance, we would be glad to hear from them.

Yet it is hard to ignore the reality that many of the requests concern reports about crimes, legal proceedings and anti-social behaviour. The suspicion – which of course we cannot prove – is that individuals are using the law to hide events in their past which reflect badly on them. Understandable of course, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is less about a right to be forgotten and more about a handy way of rewriting history.

One person’s left is another’s right

A reader complained that we had portrayed Jeremy Corbyn as an extremist in an article last Friday, describing his critics within the parliamentary Labour Party as “moderates”. We certainly did not refer to Corbyn as “extreme”; and the label “left-winger”, which we did use, seems fairly reasonable.

Nonetheless, the reader made an interesting point that a lot of people who support Corbyn do not regard themselves or their politics as either “extreme” or indeed particularly left-wing. The media would do well to remember this. Corbyn may seem a fair way from the centre, but to create a caricature of him as some sort of crank will only serve to convince some sections of the public that there is an establishment plot to undermine his popular mandate as Labour’s leader.

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