The right to be forgotten

right to be forgottenThis business about “the right to be forgotten” continues to fascinate me. It’s no surprise that a lot of the conversation around it has highlighted the futility of removing certain people from search results in some countries, and that the word “censorship” has floated into different headlines and perspectives on the issue.

If you haven’t been following it, here’s the Kohl’s notes version. A European court rules that people should have the right to be forgotten. Google complies, somewhat, and begins notifying selected media when articles mentioning these people are being removed from precious search engine result pages. We begin to hear a few examples that highlight the nonsense that is this story – like the disgraced corporate executive who suddenly started looking like a pretty great guy. Given the position Google’s in with this, it seems the giant is handling things kinda smartly so far.

Don’t get me wrong. People deserve privacy. But that’s not what this is. According to the issue’s Wikipedia entry, “the right to be forgotten is distinct from the right to privacy, due to the distinction that the right to privacy constitutes information that is not publicly known, whereas the right to be forgotten involves removing information that was publicly known…” I tend to agree with Forbes contributor Guy Clapperton: “If the ruling falls apart, good. I’m not in favour of people rewriting history because they wish they hadn’t said or done something.”

On the other hand, the idea that people could have even greater effect on the all powerful search results shown by Google or other engines is kind of a democratic one – considering how many businesses and people have struggled to affect those results according to the search engines’ own rules and guidance, only to be disappointed or frustrated with poor results. But that’s just the Gemini in me talking. Now, I revert back to the stance that this is a scary thing.

As the story goes down, more examples of why this is a bad idea will probably surface. Of course, Bing is a lesser part of the story at the moment, because they’re … uh … tiny in comparison – but they’ve got to comply with it too. But what does this say about the rest of the web? Should Amazon get away with book listings mentioning these forgotten people? Should Facebook delete posts by users who mention these forgotten names? If I Tweet about someone whose requested removal from search results, should Twitter remove my message from the view of my followers or hashtag watchers or searches or trends? Even worse, if I send an email using a service owned by a company ordered to honour the right to be forgotten, will it reach the recipient without alteration? Extreme scenarios, I know. Maybe.

There are so many things wrong with this situation, and it really stands as another example of the strange thinking that comes from “justice” systems in various parts of the world.

Considering the huge reliance on search engines by the public seeking news and information, it is a scary thought to consider that some companies or individuals may be able to affect what I find online through my own curious and necessary research efforts. Some may argue that already happens to some extent. I would argue that if you can’t find what you’re looking for, you’re not searching hard enough – but if the right to be forgotten continues I’ll just have to remove that argument from this post.