The Right To Be Forgotten – should it be a right and does it work?

privacyOn Wednesday 12th October, a discussion was held at City discussing Professor George Brock’s new book, The Right to be Forgotten: Privacy and the Media in the Digital Age. It focused on a variety of issues surrounding internet privacy and the sharing of information by mavericks such as Facebook and Google. These developments have given rise to a movement promoting a ‘right to be forgotten’, an argument that freedom of expression should be balanced by being allowed to erase information which affects the individual.

Practically, this manifests itself in the de-indexing (or delisting), of internet search results and the deletion of digital material. Journalism’s role as a contributor to public memory was also considered in the context of its intersection with this new technology and the laws being made around it. Dr Rasmus Kleis Nielson from the Reuteurs Insitute for the Study of Journalism chaired the evening, and on the panel were Dr Paul Bernal (lecturer of IT Law, UEA), Peter Barron (Google, Head of Communications) and Professor George Brock, who teaches journalism at City.

Brock started by helping to unpack the tension between free speech and privacy, which coexist uneasily and is foregrounded by the world wide web. The internet’s ever-growing presence has made information simultaneously more permanent, because of easy searchability, and more ephemeral.

The panel discussed the 2014 judgment of Mario Costeja Gonzalez against Google (C-131/12 Google Spain SL and Google Inc v. AEPD and Mario Costeja Gonzalez) – also known as ‘Google Spain’, which constituted a landmark ruling for the EU courts. The Court of Justice held that Google was responsible for processing Costeja’s personal information which appeared on web pages published by third parties. This showed incriminating debts, including a foreclosure, from a number of years ago that were now settled and could tarnish his current reputation. Google subsequently removed links from searching in European countries (google.co.uk, google.fr etc.) as required by EU data privacy laws, but crucially, not from countries outside of Europe (e.g. google.com). According to recent figures, the EU has taken down 1.7 million URLs after several requests, with the public interest in mind.

The judgment was a controversial one, as it implicated search engines more broadly in whether they must consider requests from individuals to remove links to pages when they are ‘inadequate or no longer relevant’. Dr Paul Bernal admitted to liking the judgment because it not only brought the issue of digital privacy to light, but it also made Google think more seriously about the repercussions of its privacy policies on individuals.

The case raised the issue of territorial scope and the enforceability of legal rulings in relation to the internet. As an essentially borderless entity, questions were asked on how you can legally regulate it, and who should regulate it, when there are no frontiers per se. Peter Barron, from Google, explained that ‘geoblocking’ – limiting your access to the internet based on your geographic location – is in place at Google, and helps ensure the privacy of its users.

In the Q&As, Barron admittedly received a lot heat from the audience for Google’s subsequent opaque policies how in how they deal with individuals’ privacy. Perhaps more worryingly, Brock signalled that new jurisprudence is being created by Google virtually in secret, and old-fashioned legal systems for data protection have not sufficiently adapted to new functions that Google holds in its power over the public’s information.

Despite Barron claiming that Google were attempting to move towards greater transparency, Brock maintained that this transparency was not clear enough. In rebuttal, Peter stated that he did not think it was for Google to make these extremely nuanced decisions, yet as there is no legal institution sufficient and specialised enough to deal with these issues, Google must either independently, or with the help of the courts, make data protection decisions that affect everyone.

Author Oscar

Author Oscar

Whether desired or not, companies such as Facebook and Google have created a new version of capital Brock calls ‘public goods’, which are essentially the vast amounts of personal information that these search engines contain. It is vital therefore that internet mavericks acknowledge this and act responsibly, taking measures to protect the interests of the general public.

Many thanks to Oscar Davies for reviewing this event for Lawbore.

Oscar undertook a French & History degree at King’s College London, specialising in gender and queer theory. He is looking to go into the Bar, and is interested in the commercial side, especially media law. 

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