Should We Have the 'Right to Be Forgotten' Online?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

This picture taken on January 27, 2010 in Paris shows the internet homepage of the English version of the search engine website Google. (LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty)

When Edward Snowden pulled back the curtain on the National Security Agency's mass surveillance apparatus, online privacy took on a whole new meaning. And in a moment in time when technology enterprises in the United States think of data as a multi-million dollar moneymaking business, consumers are often left feeling powerless against the very tools that have become vital to modern life.

But it seems that the European Union's highest court is giving a little bit more power back to the people. On Tuesday, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg issued a decision that represents a major blow for Google, ruling that in some cases, the company must grant users of the search engine a so-called "right to be forgotten," which includes the deletion of files, text and images that they may have posted. 

Tuesday's judgement was based on a 1995 data protection law that establishes limited rights to object to the processing of personal information, and to demand that it be erased in certain situations. 

The ruling means that companies like Google should, in certain cases, allow web users the right to be "forgotten" after a period of time by deleting links to online pages “unless there are particular reasons, such as the role played by the data subject in public life, justifying a preponderant interest of the public.”

Weighing in on the decision is Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center and a professor at George Washington University Law School.

"This is a huge deal not only in Europe, but around the world," says Rosen. "It represents, potentially, the biggest clash between privacy rights and free speech rights of the modern era. Since 2012, Europe has been debating whether to adopt a broad right to be forgotten that would allow individuals to demand the deletion of truthful but embarrassing information about themselves merely because they don't like it."

Rosen says that at the heart of this case is a man from Spain that wanted to delete an online notice about the auction of his home which was repossessed. He sued a Spanish newspaper, but the Spanish court ruled that the publication did not have to delete the online listing.

"But then in this sweeping ruling, the Luxembourg court said that Google and Yahoo have to remove links to the story," says Rosen. "What's so striking about this is how amorphous the standards are. Basically, it's now up to European privacy commissioners to decide whether information is in the public interest or not, when it's relevant, and when it's been up too long. Because the tech companies can't know in advance whether or not a particular request is going to be granted, they'll have an incentive to remove stuff any time anyone requests it."

Rosen adds that if Google or Yahoo don't comply with requests for removal, they could potentially be financially liable for the content their search engines it surface, which could further drive these tech giants to remove links upon any request. Rosen adds that he believes that this ruling directly conflicts with our fundamental understanding of free speech, and is a "huge threat" to free expression.

But is this really enforceable? Rosen says laws like this are deeply rooted in European history.

"This comes from a French right le droit à l'oubli, or the right of oblivion," he says. "The French and the Germans have long said that if you have a criminal history, for example, you can remove it after a certain amount of time because people should be able to have a second chance and not always be dogged by their past."

The French and German right of oblivion, says Rosen, is enforceable because of the statute of limitations, which determines the period of when individuals can and cannot refer to someone's criminal history. But Rosen says this ruling is fundamentally different.

"But this right, where the standards are so broad, any time that I claim that data about me violates my privacy or dignity I can potentially demand its removal," he says. "That would literally tie up the internet in knots. The difficulties of enforcement, that's one of the tech companies' strongest arguments against this. It's just litigation on steroids—this will open up a huge opportunity for aggrieved people who think that truthful but embarrassing information should be removed from Google."

Rosen says that this has the potential to change Google from a neutral search engine to a "censor-in-chief" and arbiter of what information is relevant—or damaging.

"It's going to transform the ways Google, Yahoo and others operate in Europe if this decision is sustained and extended," he says.

When it comes to the United States, Rosen says that Google is immune from this judgement because of the Communications Decency Act, which will not make Google liable for the content it posts.

The law can be complicated, however. Rosen says that if an individual posts a funny photo of themselves on Facebook, removing the photo at a later date is no problem. If the same person shares the same photo and it goes viral, in the United States the photo is then considered other people's speech and is protected, meaning the individual would have no right to remove it. But that's not the case everywhere.

"In Argentina, which applied an earlier version of this 'right to be forgotten,' a pop star demanded the removal of racy pictures of herself that had gone viral," says Rosen. "An Argentinian judge actually ordered Yahoo to remove the pictures under the threat of a fine of a huge amount of money everyday. Basically, she erased herself from history, she removed herself from the internet, and if she had been running for Parliament she could try to selectively rewrite the past."

What do you think? Vote in our poll below.

Hosted by:

Jeffrey Rosen


T.J. Raphael

Comments [14]


Google doesn't generate the data it just finds it. If you want the stuff removed it has to be removed from the source itself.

May. 15 2014 12:41 AM
Steve from Queens

If corporations are "people," then expect them to take advantage of this as well. Expect politicians to erase evidence of their voting records. Expect incriminating evidence captured on youtube to be taken down.

There's just too much potential for problems here. In this age, we need the internet to keep us informed. I don't think we should jeopardize that.

False information is a different matter entirely, and in many cases, Facebook/Google will already help you there.

May. 14 2014 11:03 AM
Russ from Bronx, NY

This is a fantastic revelation of personal rights in the modern age. As a Dean in a Highschool in NYC I am forced daily to make my students aware of the permanence of their online lives and actions. The forgiveness of being "forgotten" could be life changing and even life saving for some of my students. I am all for it!

May. 13 2014 11:24 PM
Erica from RI

To me, there has to be a discussion about how to protect people on the internet from cyber bullies. Yes, when you post something about yourself you have to understand it goes into a public domain. But, if someone else publishes something about you to ruin your reputation, often times using Google or other search engines to flood the sites with lies and horrible accusations, then we should have the right to have it removed. I have seen this happen to a friend and it is terribly upsetting. I firmly believe there will eventually be some sort of control needed. Right now, it feels like the Wild, Wild West!

May. 13 2014 03:51 PM

I always thought that free speech was more important than anything.

Than I became a victim of domestic abuse.

There are times that being able to erase your internet history can be a safety issue. I do not want anyone to post anything about me, be it a property transfer, a review of my work, ANYTHING. I do not want my ex to be able to find me.

So now I wonder is free speech more important than my personal safety.

And yes, this is an alias.

May. 13 2014 03:34 PM

But this case was not about removing information as much as about how search engines find it. It's not about destroying information but not having it dog you at every turn.

May. 13 2014 03:22 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Don't get me wrong, I am all for "The Right For Oblivion" I would love not only to erase my past but to re-write it.

Not only do I want," the right to be forgotten", but the right to be forgiven for bad comments that I made on segments of "The Takeaway,"

I write every day in order to re-write who I am...tomorrow I may disagree with everything I wrote today and re-write it. We'll see.

I will always give myself the "right to oblivion."

May. 13 2014 02:23 PM
Greg from Salem, MA

It's quite simple. Don't share or post or put out there in any way something that night come back to bite you in the ass. Even if you do "delete" the offending material it's already been seen shared , stored, indexed in many locations. It would be quite difficult to remove the things you share with the internet.

May. 13 2014 02:22 PM
Matt from Texas

Each new generation relies more and more on the internet as a main source of information, and unfortunately take a lot of what they read for granted. Recorded history and access to that record provides accountability. Suppose a man is involved in a large scandal, and is convicted, but 10 years later has internet record of this erased, and runs for a political office. No one who wasn't around during the scandal would have any clue, and take him at his word of his integrity. Think if China and it's censorship of the Tienammen Square protest.

May. 13 2014 12:30 PM
peter from wyomissing pa

For private citizens yes. Why should teenage iniscretions--or high school bullying snark dog you through life wherever you are in the world?
Here's a trade -- let the corporations and those like zuckerberg who think there should be no privacy have everything about them searchable all the time.
Bet they wouldn't take that deal, why should we?

May. 13 2014 12:24 PM
David from Dallas

regarding the caller who complains about sites selling the fact that a specific person has visited a given site -> the are free ways to hide your IP address. e.g.

May. 13 2014 12:22 PM
Meg from Portland

I am an advocate of free speech. But I also think the internet opens up unique issues. Comparing old pre-internet free speech laws to today is not relevant. A newspaper fades away, people were able to re-create themselves in some ways. But with the internet, there is no chance of that. Deleting things from the web does not mean they have re-written the past (as the speaker said about the woman in S. America), it only means the information does not exist on the internet - there is more to life than the web!

May. 13 2014 12:21 PM
Ed Imbier from USA

Here is President Obama's chance to hide that the CIA/NSA spied on foreign leaders.

May. 13 2014 11:17 AM
Myviewisamericantoo from Washington, DC

When your name is "Jeffrey Rosen" or "John Doe" it's no surprise you could support having all of your information easily searched on the internet... There are hundreds of Jeffrey Rosens. Try having a unique name for a day. It's really not a fair standard. As someone with a unique name, I don't enjoy the same privacy on google as Jeffrey Rosen does.

This is not an issue that is only important to Europeans.

May. 13 2014 09:22 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.