The Audacious ‘Right to Be Forgotten’

Posted by Kovey Coles at Jul 31, 2013 10:08 AM |
There has long been speculation over the permanency of our online presence. Posting about excessively-personal details, commenting in a way which is later embarrassing, being caught in unflattering public photos; to our chagrin, all of these unfortunate situations often persist on the web, and can continue to haunt us in future years.

Perhaps less dire, what if someone decides that she no longer wants the history of her internet action stored in online systems?

So far, there has been confusion over what should be done, and what realistically can be done about this type of permanent presence on a platform as complex and international in scope as the internet. But now, the idea of a right to be forgotten may be able to define the rights and responsibilities in dealing with unwanted data.

The right to be forgotten is an interesting and highly contentious concept currently being debated in the new European Union Data Protection Regulations.[1]

The Data Protection Regulation Bill was proposed in 2012 by EU Commissioner Viviane Reding and stands to replace the EU’s previous Data Protection law, which was enacted in 1995. Referred to as the “right to be forgotten” (RTBF), article 17 of the proposal would essentially allow an EU citizen to demand service providers to “take all reasonable steps” to remove his or her personal data from the internet, as long as there is no “legitimate” reason for the provider to retain it.[1] Despite the evident emphasis on personal privacy, the proposition is surrounded by controversy and facing resistance from many parties. Apparently, there are a range of concerns over the ramifications RTBF could bring.

Not only are major IT companies staunchly opposed to the daunting task of being responsible for the erasure of data floating around the web, but governments like the United States and even Great Britain are objecting the proposal as well.[2],[3]

From a commercial aspect, IT companies and US lobbying forces view the concept of RTBF as a burden and a waste of resources for service providers to implement. Largely due to the RTBF clause, the new EU Data Protection proposal as a whole has witnessed intense, “unprecedented” lobbying by the largest US tech companies and US lobby groups[4],[5]. From a different angle, there are those like Great Britain, whose grievances with the RTBF are in its overzealous aim and insatiable demands.[2] There are doubts as to whether a company will even be able to track down and erase all forms of  the data in question. The British Ministry of Justice stated, "The UK does not support the right to be forgotten as proposed by the European commission. The title raises unrealistic and unfair expectations of the proposals."[2] Many experts share these feasibility concerns. The Council of European Professional Informatics Societies (CEPIS) wrote a short report on the ramifications of cloud computing practices in 2011, in which it conformed, “It is impossible to guarantee complete deletion of all copies of data. Therefore it is difficult to enforce mandatory deletion of data. Mandatory deletion of data should be included into any forthcoming regulation of Cloud Computing services, but still it should not be relied on too much: the age of a ‘Guaranteed complete deletion of data’, if it ever existed has passed."[6]

Feasibility aside, the most compelling issue in the debate over RTBF is the demanding challenge of balancing and prioritizing parallel rights. When it comes to forced data erasure, conflicts of right to be forgotten versus freedom of speech and expression easily arises. Which right takes precedence over the other?

Some RTBF opponents fear that RTBF will hinder freedom of speech. They have a valid point. What is the extent of personal data erasure? Abuse of RTBF could result in some strange, Orwellian cyberspace where the mistakes or blemishes of society are all erased or constantly amended, and only positivity fills the internet. There are reasonable fears that a chilling effect may come into play once providers face the hefty noncompliance fines of the Data Protection law, and begin to automatically opt for customer privacy over considerations for freedom of expression. Moreover, what safeguards may be in place to prevent politicians or other public figures from removing bits of unwanted coverage?

Although these examples are extreme, considerations like these need to be made in the development of this law. With the amount of backlash from various entities, it is clear that a concept like the right to be forgotten could not exist as a simple, generalized law. It needs refinement.

Still, the concept of a RTBF is not without its supporters. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of Internet Governance at Oxford Internet Institute, considers RTBF implementation feasible and necessary, saying that even if it is difficult to remove all traces of an item, "it might be in Google's back-up, but if 99% of the population don't have access to it you have effectively been deleted."[7] Additionally, he claims that the undermining of freedom of speech and expression is "a ridiculous misstatement."[7] To him, the right to be forgotten is tied intricately to the important and natural process of forgetting things of the past.

Moreover, the Data Protection Regulation does mention certain exceptions for the RTBF, including protection for "journalistic purposes or the purpose of artistic or literary expression." [1] The problem, however, is the seeming contradiction between the RTBF and its own exceptions. In practice, it will be difficult to reconcile the powers granted by the RTBF with the limitations claimed in other sections of the Data Protection Regulation.

Currently, the are a few clean and straight forward implementations of RTBF. One would be the removal of mined user data which has been accumulated by service providers. Here, invoking the right would be possible once a person has deleted accounts or canceled contracts with a service (thereby fulfilling the notion that the service no longer has "legitimate" reason to retain the data). Another may be in the case of personal data given by minors who later want their data removed, which is an important example mentioned in Reding’s original proposal.[4] These narrow cases are some of the only instances where RTBF may be used without fear of interference with other social rights. Broader implementations of the RTBF concept, under the current unrefined form, may cause too many conflicting areas with other freedoms, and especially freedom of expression.

Overall, the Right to Be Forgotten is a noble concept, born out of concern for the citizen being overpowered by the internet. As an early EU publication states, "The [RTBF] rules are about empowering people, not about erasing past events or restricting the freedom of the press."[8] But at this point, too many clear details seem to be lacking from the draft design of the RTBF. There is concern that without proper deliberation, the concept could lead to unforeseen and undesirable outcomes. Privacy is a fundamental right that deserves to be protected, but policy makers cannot blindly follow the ideals of one right to the point where it interferes with other aspects of society.

Fortunately, recent amendment proposals have attempted some refinement of the bill. Jeffrey Rosen writes in the Stanford Law Review about a certain key concept that could help legitimize the right, namely an amendment proposing that only personally contributed data may be rescinded.[9] This would help avoid interference with others’ rights to expression, and provide limitations on the extent of right to be forgotten claims. As Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology wrote in the Huffington Post, amendments are needed which can specifically define personal data in the RTBF sense; thereby distinguishing which type of data is allowed to be removed.[10] In the upcoming months, the European Parliament will be considering such amendments to the proposal. This time will be crucial as it will determine if the development of the right to be forgotten will make it a viable option for the EU’s 500 million citizens.

But even after terms are defined and after safeguards are established, this underling philosophical question remains:

Should a person be able to reclaim the right to privacy after willingly giving it up in the first place?

The RTBF is obviously a contentious topic, one which may need to be gauged individually by nation states; it will soon be revealed if the EU becomes the first to adopt the right. If RTBF fails to pass in European parliament, I would hope that it at least serves to remind people of the permanence of the data which they add to the internet, further incentivizing careful consideration of what one yields to the web. Rights frequently evolve and expand to meet societal or technological advances. If we are to expand the concept of privacy, however, then we must do so with proper consideration, so that privacy may not gain disproportionate power over other rights, or vice versa.