Forget About Me

A homework assignment I thought I’d share.

In a fascinating article in the September 29, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, called “The Solace of Oblivion,” legal reporter Jeffrey Toobin examines the discrepancy between the United States and the European Union regarding privacy on the Internet. He quotes the director of civil liberties from the Stanford Center for Internet and Society as saying “Europeans think of the right to privacy as a fundamental human right in the way we [Americans] think of freedom of expression or the right to counsel.” Toobin traces the grisly story of the fight of Christos Catsouras, a bereaved father trying to force Google to remove photos of his daughter’s decapitated corpse, which morgue attendants had taken and then e-mailed to several friends as a “Halloween prank.” The images soon went viral and now appear whenever the young woman’s name is googled. The father cannot compel Google to remove the photos. (He eventually sued for emotional damages.)

By contrast, an irritated Spanish property owner sued to have removed information regarding certain of his debts which were settled but still popped up whenever his name was Googled. The Spanish Data Protection Agency granted the claim against Google. In May 2013, the affirmation was upheld by the European Court of Justice, a kind of Supreme Court for members of the EU, which wrote that all individuals in EU countries had the right to prohibit Google from linking to items that were “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed.”

This quickly became known as the “right to be forgotten.”

Google is annoyed. Its general counsel states “we like to think of ourselves as a card catalogue.” The president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in D.C. argues “Google is no longer the card catalogue. It is the library – and it’s the bookstore and the newsstand.”

Is Google a card catalogue or a library? A recent article in Law Technology News (LTN) asserts that it is a crime scene:

Even though the Internet has been, is, and always will be a crime scene, there are, at last count, 634 million websites and 2.4 billion users. The Internet is here to stay and nobody is going to uninvent it. Because the online world mirrors the real world, the millions of people who go to New York or London or Paris or Delhi, knowing there’s a chance they’ll get robbed or ripped off, go because they feel they’re taking an acceptable risk. They go online feeling the same.

(“Grey Questions,” 8/27/14 — hyperlink not available as it is a subscription service)

In September, a European Commission began to offer guidelines for how European courts should handle “right to be forgotten” complaints and plans to issue a full set of guidelines in November. An article in The Asian Lawyer states, “Google revealed in July that it had already received “right to be forgotten” requests from 91,000 individuals in Europe.” (“European Commission to Offer Guidelines on `Right to Be Forgotten,’” 9/22/14 – hyperlink not available as it is a subscription service).

Toobin relates Google’s elaborate system for complying with such requests, but this New York Times article

lays it out more clearly.

• Do not retaliate against someone online
• Take a screen shot and record the evidence
• Use this online form to report the violation to Facebook.
• Use this online form to report a copyright infringement on YouTube.

(In the quoted New York Times article, a mother writes of having posted a video of her four-year-old daughter discussing racism to her private youtube channel to share her daughter’s views with friends. Someone else downloaded it, altered it, stripped it of identifying details, changed the title, and reuploaded it to general youtube. The video was shared 80,000 times and was aired on the television show “The View.”)

The Internet is a crime scene, as the LTN article asserts, yet I disagree that it “mirrors the real world.” It would mirror the real world if in the real world we all went around in masks, costumes, and pseudonyms. It’s the power of anonymity and the lack of repercussions that makes Internet behavior so appalling, and the ease of access to potentially harmful or inaccurate information that makes it so fraught with danger. Also, LTN’s assertion that users log onto the internet feeling they’re taking an “acceptable risk,” as they would when traveling to a big city is not quite apt. What the Internet did to the Catsouras family was more akin to sending all the criminals from New York City crashing into their home to take up residence forever. This article points out that health care records could be compromised by hackers who could then upload them to the internet. “Internet regulation must recognize the power of certain dominant firms to shape impressions of individuals.” Impressions lead to reputation which lead to destiny. In the real world, we are quite resistant to other people shaping our destiny. Why should we allow it to happen online?

The information service profession is about information storage, retrieval, access, and user experience. We don’t allow malicious patrons, or even benevolent ones, to wander through our archives or our databases altering records, stealing them, or sharing them without authorization or consequences. Ultimately, I think, “the right to be forgotten” is not so much about privacy or free speech. It’s about control.

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