Do we really have a right to be forgotten?

Summary:This May, Europe's top court ruled that search engines must consider requests to exclude material that is "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant" from search results.

Jo Best

Jo Best

Yes

or

No

Steve Ranger

Steve Ranger

Best Argument: Yes

38%
63%

Audience Favored: No (63%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

Difficult but necessary

Jo Best: Let's get one thing straight: The right to be forgotten isn't a right. If you've done some bad stuff in the past, the recent European Court of Justice ruling that brought in the so-called right won't just let you scrub it off the internet for good.

And while we're at it, let's get another thing straight: That right is a blunt instrument. Deciding what stories, facts, and rumours should be tied to your name forever more is not an easy business, and not something that an algorithm can decide.

Nor should it be. Google has received thousands of requests from people who want certain links to stop showing up when people search for their names, some of them have legitimate reasons for doing so, some have not.

Take for example a man convicted of a sex crime, and his victim. Should the offender have the details of his crime removed from search results? Most people would argue not. Should his victim be able to go through life without the details of the attack against her being returned in the search results every time anyone Googles her name? Most people would say so.

The right to be forgotten doesn't stipulate both requests should be granted, nor that both should be denied, simply that both must be considered. The requests do mean that search engines and others must make a call about whether the information should be highlighted to the public, but that's exactly what they do every day when they decide which stories should be in that all-important first page of blue links.

No one said those decisions will be easy, but they are necessary.

New age, new rules

Steve Ranger: There is no right to be forgotten. The act of forgetting is something that is essential to humans; we can't store every piece of information, every memory, so we only hold onto a fraction of what we see, hear or read.

There's good reasons for that - our forgetfulness makes us braver because we forget past pain, and keeps us exploring to find new experiences because we can't just replay the old ones.

But our human limitations, the accidents of our evolution, should not apply to our digital technology. It can implacably store everything, forever; the hardware might die but the data carefully can last forever. And as we record ever more data about our lives, it's time we got used to it being permanent.

It's foolish to think we can apply outmoded human expectations about what will be remembered and what will be forgotten in this new age.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Welcome!

    Are our debaters standing by? We'll be starting promptly at 11am ET / 4pm BT.

    Readers: Once the debate starts, this page will refresh automatically each time a new question (or answer) is posted.

    Posted by Zack Whittaker

    Ready here.


    Jo Best

    I am for Yes

    Looking forward to it!


    Steve Ranger

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Is the right to be forgotten compatible with freedom of speech?

    This May, Europe's top court ruled that search engines must consider requests from Europeans to stop material that is "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant" being returned as results when a search is performed for their name. Is the right to be forgotten compatible with freedom of speech?

    Posted by Zack Whittaker

    Shades of grey

    I think the right to be forgotten is perceived as being a very black and white issue, whereas this question shows exactly how many shades of grey there really are.

    The answer to this has to be given on a case-by-case basis. If you're a person in political office campaigning on an anti-drugs ticket seeking to hide your previous possession convictions, I'd argue no, the public interest dictates that information should be returned if voters search for you.

    Things aren't so clear cut for the average punter, though. The European Court of Justice handed down its ruling in the case of a Spanish man and two newspaper articles that related to an auction used to settle his social security debts. Though the auction happened 15 years ago and he had moved on since then, the articles were very prominent in the Google results when people searched for his name, meaning a decade and a half later, friends and colleagues presumably would be able to discover what had happened in the 1990s. It's a more nuanced case than the anti-drugs politician, and definitely worth of consideration by search engines. After all, there is a non-digital precedent: in UK law for example, after a certain time, convictions are spent and you no longer have to declare them to your employer. It's not unreasonable a similar right should hold true in the digital realm.

    Jo Best

    I am for Yes

    Can you really have freedom of speech if no one can hear what you are saying?

    You might think that right to be forgotten doesn't affect your freedom of speech. But it does, in subtle but important ways.

    It doesn't reduce your ability to write a story about someone, but it makes it harder for others to find that story if they are using a search engine, which is of course how most people navigate the web. That raises the question - can you really have freedom of speech if no one can hear what you are saying? Freedom of speech implicitly includes the freedom to be heard and that's what we're putting at risk here.

    Steve Ranger

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Fair or unreasonable?

    European law dictates every citizen of the 28 member states has a right to privacy. That seems to gel with the ruling on the right to be forgotten. Is it fair, or unreasonable, for a person to ask for past indiscretions to be deleted from the European web? Give an example.

    Posted by Zack Whittaker

    Reasonable...

    To be clear, under article eight of the European Convention on Human Rights, Europeans do have "a right to respect for his or her private and family life, home and correspondence", but given what GCHQ and the NSA have been up to of late, you have to wonder how widely it's actually held up.

    But to answer the question, yes, it's entirely reasonable that people have the right to make those requests, it's not reasonable for them to be granted on a blanket basis.

    Under the right to be forgotten, you can't ask for material about you to be deleted from the web per se, just that you can ask for outdated, irrelevant, excessive material to not appear in search results for your name.

    Jo Best

    I am for Yes

    This problem is going to get worse

    It's entirely understandable that people would want old stories forgotten, especially when they are no longer relevant. Previously these stories, these references, would have continued to exist somewhere - in a yellowing copy of an old paper, or in our own fallible memories - but they wouldn't have been easily accessible.

    Right to be forgotten is trying to create the same information decay effect for the digital age. It's an understandable reaction to the huge impact the internet has had - making vast amounts of information much easier to find than ever before. There are some very limited scenarios - such as in the UK spent convictions which do not have to be disclosed in most cases - where a right to be forgotten makes sense. But beyond that it's very hard to see why information which is fair and accurate should be removed from view.

    We just don't have anything like the technology to be able to do it in a fair way. We have no way of weighting the individual's right to privacy against the community's right to know. This is a problem that is going to get worse and worse as we pile more information online.

    Steve Ranger

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The ordinary person?

    How might "right to be forgotten" affect the ordinary person on the streets of London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, and so on. Why should anyone in Europe care?

    Posted by Zack Whittaker

    It's difficult to say

    For the average European, it's difficult to say how much of a difference the advent right to be forgotten will make to their daily lives - it's still a relatively new phenomenon and both search engines and data protection authorities are still getting to grips with it themselves.

    For most people, its most visible incarnation is a short message that anyone Googling a name will see at the bottom of their results: "Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe." Google puts this message on searches for people's names whether it has removed any links or not, so the vast majority of searches will be unaltered and Europeans will get the same search results they'll always have done.

    In a very small minority of cases, Google will have stopped returning a particular link in search results for an individual's name. The original material will remain online, and people can still access it through Google, just not as part of a search for a particular name.

    For example, imagine an individual had asked Google to stop returning a link to an article discussing a fraud charge they were acquitted of at trial. Let's call that fictional individual Joe Bloggs, and say the fictional article was on the BBC News website. If Google granted that request and someone Googled the name 'Joe Bloggs', the BBC article wouldn't show up in the search results. The restriction only applies to that name, so searching for 'Joe Bloggs fraud' would still yield the BBC article.

    On the other side of the fence, it gives European citizens a right to request that material involving them that is outdated, no longer relevant, or excessive be removed from searches for their names. Whether or not the material should be delinked is pretty much down to the discretion of the search engine, who has to consider the public interest in having the material still findable, and the privacy of the individual in not being forever haunted by something that happened decades ago.

    Jo Best

    I am for Yes

    Tampering with our collective memory

    If you are being haunted by a story that you can't escape - then right to be forgotten can help. For the rest of us right to be forgotten represents a reduction in our collective knowledge: it can't make us forget something, but it might stop us remembering it, because we won't be able to find it in search. Tampering with our collective memory - which is what search engines are becoming - is something that should face greater scrutiny. For as we know, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

    Steve Ranger

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Impact on a free press?

    Since the ruling came in, Google has removed, then reinstated, links to a number of news articles on prominent sites including the BBC and the Guardian. Given Google is the way the majority of Europeans discover content on the web via Google, does the ruling have an impact on a free press?

    Posted by Zack Whittaker

    Public figures vs average Joes

    It's worth remembering that, for good or ill, the majority of delinking requests involve news stories, and that even stories that are entirely factually accurate can be affected by right to be forgotten requests. However, even when the requests are granted, the articles they refer to remain online and unaltered, it's just they don't show up in a particular search.

    Journalists have understandably reacted against instances of delinking. When delinking requests affected the BBC and the Guardian, for example, both wrote articles highlighting what had happened - drawing more attention to the stories that those that had filed the requests had wanted to quietly disappear.

    There have equally been other instances where delinking requests have received only cursory interest, and journalists have chiefly been content to let them slide. The difference between the two appears to be that when public figures want to hide events about their pasts that should remain public knowledge, journalists draw attention to them, but when the requests involve average Joes who want to move on from minor events, they are largely - thought not entirely - ignored.

    Jo Best

    I am for Yes

    Anyone can still publish what they want - the question is whether we can find it.

    That's the real problem here. It reflects the outsized power that search engines have over the information we consume. Every time a link is removed from the rankings it damages knowledge in a way that is beneficial to the few, not the many.

    The right to be forgotten needs to be much more sophisticated than just hiding a few links. If a story is no longer relevant why not just remove it, rather than hide it? It's a fudge, at best, which doesn't work very well.

    Steve Ranger

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Let's consider the US side of things.

    Does the European ruling affect US citizens or residents? Explain why it does, or doesn't.

    Posted by Zack Whittaker

    Pay attention to the ruling

    For users outside the European Union, they'll see pretty much no difference in their search results. The ruling was handed down by the European Court of Justice and covers European citizens, so don't expect Google to change its search results outside the Union's borders.

    Non-European companies will have to pay attention to the ruling, however, if they want to do business on the continent. Search engines or other data controllers with a European branch or subsidiary will have to make sure they consider requests from European subjects under the ruling.

    Jo Best

    I am for Yes

    Right now there's a limited impact outside of Europe...

    ...to be sure, but the issues are the same elsewhere. The problem we have now is that search engines can only remember the things they are told and the average person has a very small digital footprint - usually only the bad things. Those few items of data can't define a person, but removing them isn't correct either.

    Steve Ranger

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Could the new system be open to abuse?

    Are there enough safeguards and protections in place yet (or not) to prevent abuses in the system?

    Posted by Zack Whittaker

    Legitimacy of individual requests

    As things stand, those submitting requests have to send in copies of their ID to prove they are the subject of the request, or have the legal right to act for the subject, in order to prevent fraudulent requests.

    The decision on whether to delink is down to the search engine itself - in Google's case, it has an army of recently-recruited legal staff to help.

    Should the subject of those requests disagree with the search engine's decision, they can then appeal to the local data protection watchdog to review their case.

    Whether or not the system is open to abuse depends largely on your point of view of whether you view each individual request as being legitimate, and how you view Google's ongoing attempts to derail the process by delinking stories arguably in the public interest and then reinstating them, generating both anger and headlines.

    Jo Best

    I am for Yes

    This is one of the biggest issues...

    ... too big to be left to the search engines (who don't really want to police this) and the individuals who want links removed. There aren't enough checks and balances in place and you can see that from how requests have been implemented so far, where stories have disappeared from search only to reappear again. We need to have a much more profound debate about the concept of privacy in this digital age before we start turning search indexes into Swiss cheese.

    Steve Ranger

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Self-published material?

    Since the EU's ruling, Google has seen more than 100,000 requests from citizens asking for content to be scrubbed, including material they published themselves. Should people ever have a right to hide their embarrassing pasts?

    Posted by Zack Whittaker

    A growing problem....

    While the right to be forgotten deals with how search engines handle data, it's possible to imagine that in the future its stipulations, or at least its principles, could be broadened out to other services or sites.

    I suspect this is a problem people will contend with more and more, as young people used to sharing their entire lives online enter the workforce and find their youthful postings aren't easily left behind.

    If we don't build forgetting mechanisms into our digital services and digital lives, we'll prevent humans from ever growing up, being allowed to change their opinions, starting again.

    Equally, we must take responsibility ourselves - if we don't do, write, share stupid things, we will have less chance of having to plead with a data controller to remove them later on in life. What's more, we must choose to use services where our privacy is paramount, and we retain ownership over our data.

    Jo Best

    I am for Yes

    Applied far to loosely

    It's easy to understand how someone might want an embarrassing or out of date story or link hidden away. But other than in some very specific circumstances I tend to think that the right to privacy will often lose out to those other rights - to a free press, to know. Right to be forgotten may actually be the right response in some cases but it seems to be being applied far to loosely.

    Steve Ranger

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Who decides?

    The ruling is here to stay, and nothing (as of yet) can change it. How can we improve the situation to ensure that it's fair across the board? Should Google, or some other entity, decide whether or not a person has the right to be forgotten on the European web?

    Posted by Zack Whittaker

    An independent body

    A very good question. At the moment, Google is largely deciding when to accept and when to reject requests on its own. There are a couple of simple reasons for that.

    The first is that the European Union's data protection heads are currently in the process of drafting the guidelines that will be given to search engines to help them decide how to handle and whether to approve any right to be forgotten requests.

    The second is that when it comes to search in Europe, Google is pretty much the only game in town, with a market share north of 90 percent. Bing has also started accepting right to be forgotten requests, but with market share in the low single figures, it's unlikely to receive the same volume of requests as its Mountain View counterpart. Neither company, nor any other search engine for that matter, has given any insight into how they evaluate requests, meaning theoretically Google could grant a request and delink a news article, while Microsoft might not.

    That's why, as I've argued before, I don't believe the decision on whether to accept or reject right to be forgotten requests should be left to individual search engines. They fulfil their obligations under European law like a teenager being asked to tidy its room: resentfully, loudly complaining, doing the very least they can get away with.

    Far better to have an independent body, financed by contributions from the search industry, to rule on these matters and have their decisions disseminated to all search engines to be actioned consistently. The impulse for search engines is tipped in favour of delinking content - it's cheaper and easier that way - making it easier for wrongdoers to hide their crimes. With an independent pan-European body, there's a better chance that the balance between public interest and the right to privacy will be more easily struck.

    Jo Best

    I am for Yes

    Very limited cases

    We need to have a much bigger debate about our rights over our data. It should only be used in very, very limited cases. Right now we have various search companies making the decisions which won't necessarily be correct or consistent.

    Steve Ranger

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Winners and losers?

    Who are the big winners and losers from the right to be forgotten?

    Posted by Zack Whittaker

    Too soon

    Given the right to be forgotten is so young - remember, we've not even had the guidelines from the individual data protection watchdogs yet - it's simply impossible to say at this stage.

    If I was a gambler though, I'd feel reasonably confident that lawyers - Google's, the European Commission's, people representing public figures filing requests - will be the main winners.

    Jo Best

    I am for Yes

    A tilted playing field

    The risk is that the needs of a few individuals will be placed about the needs of the many. There are only a few narrow instances where the right to be forgotten should trump our right to remember. The risk is the playing field is tilted the other way right now.

    Steve Ranger

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    OK, last question: Is this just the beginning?

    How is this likely to play out over the next few years?

    Posted by Zack Whittaker

    How the ruling should play out

    Again, we're still in the early days of the right to be forgotten existing. Links are being removed and reinstated, we're seeing a rush of people chancing their arm at getting their dodgy pasts hidden a little, Google is doing its best to derail the process, the EU is doing its best to keep things on track. If anyone can predict who will win out, they've got a better crystal ball than me.

    How I would like the ruling to play out? That individuals with reasonable requests see them granted, that requests from those who would misuse the legislation to hide what shouldn't be hidden be rebuffed.

    It won't be easy, but it is necessary.

    Jo Best

    I am for Yes

    We are more than the sum of our search results.

    Right to be forgotten is just the first of a set of thorny questions we will have to decide over the next few decades.

    No, we shouldn't be cursed by past indiscretions, but it's not the job of the search engines to fix that, which is why right to be forgotten doesn't work.

    We are more than the sum of our search results. We know that about ourselves - the scant knowledge about us accessible online cannot possibly define the complicated, paradoxical beings that we are. So we do we assume that we can judge others based on what we can find in a quick online search?

    The search engine provides the information, we are the ones that make judgements based on it. It's not a failure on the part of the search engine if we judge someone wrongly based on a scrap of information that might be years, or decades old, but our failure of empathy that no amount of meddling with the search indexes can fix.

    Steve Ranger

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thank you, Jo and Steve!

    And thank you, readers, for following along. Please look for our debaters' closing arguments tomorrow, and my final verdict on Thursday.

    Posted by Zack Whittaker

Closing Statements

Freedom to move on

Jo Best

Do we really have a right to be forgotten? No, unequivocally we don't - the original right to be forgotten ruling didn't give anyone an absolute right to have their misdemeanours removed from the internet.

What it did give us though is an understanding that Google et al have a duty to make sure that the information they return for searches on our names is up to date and relevant. Given that should be their business model in the first place, it's not an unreasonable ask.

What it also showed us is that striking the balance between what the people should have a right to know - what their public figures are trying to hide from them - and whether information about individuals not in the public eye should be allowed to atrophy is hard.

Not every request for delinking is a legitimate one and search engines need to appreciate that. Just because it is cheaper and easier to accept a request, that doesn't mean it's right to do so. Google is, for better or worse, the gatekeeper of our internet experience - when we need to find something we don't know, we head to Google first. Google needs to take that responsibility seriously, challenging those that would misuse the right to be forgotten and, in the rare cases of legitimate requests, allowing them to quietly disappear from a single set of search results.

Thanks to online journalism, the dominance of Google, and social media, we have outsourced the act of remembering to an online infrastructure with capabilities far beyond that of any individual human mind. We've gained a huge amount from that, but human memory is not set up to work that way. We shouldn't remember everything, eternally - we need to be free to move on. Without a right to be forgotten, Google will trap us in our pasts, forever.

Over-reaction risks censorship

Steve Ranger

We don't and shouldn't need a right to be forgotten. Allowing accurate but old information to be hidden or erased is a damaging over-reaction that pokes holes in our collective memory and risks censorship by the backdoor.

In any case, the failing is in us, not the search engines; the technology has only served to highlight our own foolishness. We should be smart enough - and human enough - to understand that what we see online is only a fragment of someone's life, not the whole, and behave accordingly.

As such we should no more judge someone based on an out-of-date news story than we would judge them based on a drunken Facebook post from a decade ago.

And so far, the way that right to be forgotten is being applied seems inconsistent and arbitrary, making it even harder to support. In the vast majority of cases our right to remember should trump an individual's right to be forgotten.

See also:

Persuaded by the better argument

Zack Whittaker

Although the general principle of a "right to be forgotten" -- at least in its simplest terms -- is something with which I fundamentally disagree, I'm handing the win to Jo. Her points made for an overall better argument.

If you were wondering if there was a line that won me over, it was this:

"If we don't build forgetting mechanisms into our digital services and digital lives, we'll prevent humans from ever growing up, being allowed to change their opinions, and starting again. Equally, we must take responsibility ourselves -- if we don't do, write, share stupid things, we will have less chance of having to plead with a data controller to remove them later on in life."

Steve had good points and made strong arguments, and won the majority of the public's vote. But, even though I was personally on his side from the start, my persuasions turned towards the end.

Topics: Great Debate

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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