The Internet & the Right to be Forgotten

by Gabby LaVerghetta

Can a person be completely forgotten online? According to the European Commission (E.C.), not only is the answer yes, but there should be a right to guarantee it. Earlier this year, the E.C. announced a reform of the legal framework for the protection of personal data online.  Most of the policy relates to protecting the cross-border processing of data in an age of heightened security and law enforcement. However, the so-called right to be forgotten would affect internet use across the board.

The right would give individuals the right to request the erasure of their personal data online. For instance, a Facebook user who posts a photo of himself and later regrets it could request that the social network remove all instances of that photo.

The proposed regulation has sparked vigorous debate in the United States, where some see the policy as a threat to freedom of expression. The policy does not limit the requests to the individuals who uploaded the information. In other words, Person A could request the erasure of a photo that Person B put online, if only because Person A is present in the photo.

Others, like Vint Cerf (who some call the father of the internet), have argued that erasing someone from the internet would be highly challenging if not altogether impossible. Someone could have downloaded the data only to post it at a later time. Trying to keep it offline would turn into a game of cat and mouse.

Interestingly enough, the policy isn’t so controversial among European citizens.  A Eurobarometer survey from 2011 found that 75 percent of respondents wanted the right to be forgotten online. Still, the policy is worrisome. A right to be forgotten would set a dangerous precedent that information can be erased when someone no longer wants it there.

(The photo graphic is by o5com via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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