Saturday, January 28, 2012

Europe’s “right to be forgotten”: Privacy or censorship?

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Nowhere is the right to privacy more prevalent, and yet so often a controversial issue, as it is on the Internet. But Europe is now stepping dangerously close to the line of censorship with its new proposal to allow users to demand that any and all information about them be removed from the Net at will:

According to the BBC, the European Commission is apparently set to adopt formal rules guaranteeing a so-called “right to be forgotten” online. As part of the Commission’s overhaul of the 1995 Data Protection Directive, this new regulation will mandate that, “people will be able to ask for data about them to be deleted and firms will have to comply unless there are ‘legitimate’ grounds to retain it,” the BBC reports.

[…] While I can appreciate the privacy and reputational concerns that lead to calls for such information controls, the reality is that a mandatory “right to be forgotten” is a recipe for massive Internet censorship. As I noted in those earlier essays, such notions conflict violently with speech rights and press freedoms. Enshrining into law such expansive privacy norms places stricter limits on others’ rights to speak freely, or to collect and analyze information about others.

The ramifications for journalism are particularly troubling. Good reporting often requires being “nosy” while gathering facts. Journalists (and historians) might suddenly be subjected to restraints on their research and writing. The Brits have been struggling with this when trying to enforce gag orders and “super-injunctions” on media providers to protect privacy. It hasn’t turned out well, especially since new social media platforms and speakers easily evade these rules.

Retaining control over what sorts of personal or sensitive data is made available online is one thing, and until now, Internauts have been required to rely on proper judgment and prudence in order to prevent issues ranging from spambots hijacking their social networking accounts to having their naked pictures posted on 4chan. After all, cyberspace is anything but a forgiving place, and even less a forgetful one. But there nonetheless remains a difference between what sorts of information should be liable to be erased at the user’s whim, and what should remain available as part of the public record, if primarily to avoid such things as officials whitewashing their troubled history and the likes.

At any rate, if there’s one thing that far too many people have demonstrated thus far, it’s that they tend to be remarkably careless and naive about what sorts of information they see fit to post online, which all too often comes back to bite them in the arse sooner or later. The Internet is a metaphorical playground, and you can’t just leave your address and photo album lying around and then be surprised when you start receiving creepy letters with your face photoshopped into the latest edition of Horny Hunks.

But all the same, it’s equally absurd to grant said careless and naive people the right to purge the Net of anything they claim to be personal information under the guise of privacy, a practice that would undoubtedly prove just as deleterious in the end for any number of reasons.

(via The Agitator)