Right to be forgottenA colleague of mine received automated notices from two LinkedIn connections recently.  This, of course, is what LinkedIn is there for – to keep you up to date and informed about the status and activities of professionals in your field.  There was a difference about getting these notices, however.  The two professionals had died within the past year, yet their profiles, including pictures, recommendations, and statements, remained completely intact.

There is no doubt something creepy about a person’s online profile sending out automated notices to contacts from beyond the grave. For my colleague, this just wasn’t right, so he raised the basic question: how do you get personal information offline, whether it’s on a social media site or Google, once it’s online?

As it turns out, an emerging principle commonly referred to as the “right to be forgotten” has not just been proposed, but has grown some legal legs.  Essentially, this right places a responsibility on internet information providers such as Google to facilitate individuals who wish to have links and repositories of personal information removed from circulation through the internet. In 2010, a Spanish lawyer wanted information about a property auction to pay off his debts in 1998 removed from a newspaper internet site, and all Google links to the information severed.

The European Court of Justice dismissed the claim against the newspaper site, but upheld the requirement for Google to sever links to the site, saying that the information was “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed. “  In other words, the original source of the information remains, but you can’t find it on the internet unless you know the site location.

Not surprising, reactions, especially in North America, have been strong and often high-minded.  Many state that limiting Google’s tracking of internet information is a fundamental erosion of freedom of speech. The European Court is essentially requiring Google to select how and what information is accessible to millions, severely limiting the inherent right of an internet publisher or writer to have their legitimate and accurate information disseminated to the public.

Counter arguments have been just as compelling. First of all, it is clear that internet services such as Google have always been “selective” about who gets more or less access to internet content through its search restricting or enhancing algorithms based on commercial and other conditions. Google isn’t just a disinterested conduit of free speech on the internet; it is an active participant in broadcasting and disseminating information.

Another strong point that has been made is that the internet and other networked systems have fundamentally changed when and how long even the most mundane information can be found and used against an individual, many years later. This is certainly not always a good thing. A right to be forgotten doesn’t just allow shady people to hide the dark transgressions that the internet has suddenly brought to light. There are many stories of good people who, by any standards, have unjustly suffered from the wildly irresponsible and harmful publication of past events in their lives.

This last point is really a question of protecting privacy in a digital age.  Is the “right to be forgotten” an essential component of the “right to privacy”?  If it is, do existing privacy laws in Canada and elsewhere recognize this concept and compel organizations and governments to accommodate requests to erase or destroy an individual’s information from search engine records under certain conditions?  By and large, no they don’t.  However, almost every privacy law requires organizations to keep accurate and complete information about people, to be transparent about what information they have about people and how they’re using it.

These laws almost certainly dictate limits on collecting, using, and disclosing personal information based on the consent of the individual or on legitimate or authorized purposes.  Isn’t that the gist of the European Court ruling?  It would seem that the right to be forgotten has been part of our existing privacy laws all along; and organizations, including information service providers such as Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn, will inevitably need to face their responsibilities to meet this standard in the future.

Do you believe that in the digital age individuals still have a “right to be forgotten,” that information service providers such as Google have a responsibility to respect and uphold? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.