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A right to be forgotten?


The recently-introduced right to be forgotten is a headache for search engines, and a potential disaster for freedom of information. But it also gives us an opportunity to look at how we can learn from history and not be weighed down by it.

The new law covers the EU and entitles its citizens to request that links to “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” information be removed from search results, although the information itself will still remain online. The information need not be false – libel laws should already take care of that – but inconvenient truths can now effectively be hidden. The legislation only applies to the European versions of the search engines (e.g. google.co.uk, de.yahoo.com) – a basic flaw in its power.

Nevertheless it’s potentially dangerous that the likes of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have been appointed arbiters of the rights to information and privacy, especially when it concerns judgements about individuals and their rights. There’s no judicial process, no right of appeal, and not much information about which links are being removed, why and at whose request. Search engines could also surely do without the hassle of processing requests and determining their outcome. As of late July 2014, Google had received more than 91,000 requests, covering 328,000 links, and approved more than half.

In this digital age, where seemingly everything is photographed, tagged, commented on and written about, there may be things we’ve done that we wish everyone, including ourselves, could forget. Now that every decision can be scrutinised, there’s a danger that we create a world that is too risk-averse, where younger generations are too afraid to experiment, for fear of failing and doing so in public. But that requires a change in attitude, not law.

With this new law, there’s a danger that crimes committed in the past can be hidden, resulting in ill-informed decisions regarding sensitive and important issues. An extreme example is background checks on people working with children and other vulnerable people. But the web is a useful tool for background checks of all sorts.

Perhaps, as a society, we should learn to forgive a little bit more, instead of castigating perpetrators indefinitely, long after justice has been done and punishment applied. Mistakes, indiscretions and even crimes should not be lifelong millstones. We need to understand and accept that people and organisations can reform, and deserve a second chance.

In my opinion, it’s an ill-thought-out law, which will be repealed or substantially amended in time. Freedom of information, where the information is already publicly available anyway, should trump the right to hide inconvenient truths from one’s past. But we should be less judgmental and more forgiving too.