The right to be forgotten is a right to have one's digital footprint erased from the internet. This consists of erasing information about oneself and about one's activity from the internet, including photos, videos, blogposts, comments, internet searches etc.
The debate was sparked by claims that people have a right to manage their personal information however they see fit, especially if that information is damaging their reputation. Removing information from the internet can be difficult, even if the material has been deleted. For example, deleted photos and videos can still be stored in internet archives or social media search engines. The issue achieved such magnitude that the European Union has been considering making the right to be forgotten into law . The law is said to be of particular help to young people in deleting embarrassing material, but would exclude information of relevance to public interest, such as medical or police records. This would require firms that control data to erase personal data (including links or copies of the data held by the third parties) that was made public without legal justification on demand from users . The legislation needs to be approved by the European Parliament to enter into force. Though it appears that from a purely technical point of view the Right to be forgotten cannot be enforced, it is nevertheless possible to work with different actors in the society to enforce this rule to a reasonable extent, e.g. by preventing unwanted collection of information .
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People make silly mistakes, especially when they are young. The age from which you can join Facebook is 13 and pretty much anyone can post videos to Youtube, run a blog or post comments. It is then no surprise that people can leave unflattering information about themselves that at that moment they considered to be worth posting. However, this is just a one-sided representation of a person, because many good things cannot be well represented online, e.g. nobody posts a video of oneself working hard.
Nevertheless, this one-sided representation can have very damaging consequences to a person. For instance, a well-known case is of Stacy Snyder who was refused a teaching certificate by her university because of a picture of her as a drunken pirate on myspace.com, and not because she was a bad student . More importantly, current measures to delete information might not be enough, as digital information stays in internet archives, social media archives (such as profileengine.com), or can just be reposted by people on other sites and their own social media pages. Given this and the fact that these are not who people truly are, it is unfair to deny them the right to erase things that damage their reputation.
People put up all those unflattering things about themselves online without being forced to. Those are true, even if not full, representations of them. But that one-sided representation is exactly how the person wanted to be seen. They always have an option of showcasing a better image of themselves (through photos, videos, blogs, etc.) online, but nobody owes them the right to undo something they themselves freely shared. It might be a mistake they realise later on, but mistakes do not create a right to erase everything about that mistake. Nothing in real worlds works like that – you might have made a mistake by getting to drunk at a company Christmas party, but you can't insist on co-workers pretending that never happened and not telling anyone.
Moreover, there is plenty of information about how to act on the internet . So we should not grant such a right to someone who did not learn how to act on the internet - they'll have to learn the hard way.
People cannot control information that others post about them, for instance embarrassing photos from parties. Even if the original source came from people themselves, they cannot delete this information if it has been shared by other people on their social media channels. For example, Ghyslain Raza’s video of himself goofing around with a golf stick pretending to be in Star Wars, was uploaded by his classmates without his consent . While the video went viral without Ghyslain being able to delete all of its appearances at different sites, he himself suffered merciless bullying online and in real life .
There even are people who exploit people’s inability to delete embarrassing content relating to them online. ‘Revenge porn’, which is uploading private material of sexual nature of ex-partners online in an effort to humiliate them, is especially hard to delete and prosecute . Since embarrassing information can end up online without a person’s consent and is very difficult to delete using current policy measures, the right to be forgotten is the only way to help these people.
It all boils down to personal action. People who act embarrassingly in parties should not be surprised that they can be filmed. Likewise, the ‘Star Wars kid’ left the copy of a video in his high school’s film studio where it was found by other teenagers. Even people who become victims of revenge porn at the very beginning were not acting according with good judgement because they themselves organised sexual acts to be filmed or photographed and then given to other people, whom they could have not even known well. Expressing bad judgement does not incur responsibilities on other people and companies to provide you with rights, when other people are doing nothing illegal by re-posting your public material or your public actions.
Moreover, in cases of potential violation of laws, legislation can still be enacted without any kind of Right to be forgotten - California has passed a law combatting revenge porn . It might not be perfect but that is because the issue is pretty novel and in time we’ll learn to deal with it better.
The internet magnifies the problem of embarrassing personal data and makes it very hard for people to manage the consequences. In real life, though we suffer consequences for our embarrassing behaviour (or behaviour others think is embarrassing), we can manage it easier, e.g. by talking to the people involved or as a final resort moving. The internet means the humiliating material is rapidly exposed to millions of people around the world, meaning that people can face humiliation anywhere without an ability to manage it.
There are even cases of young people taking their lives after bullying and cyber-bullying that followed information about them being posted online. The most famous case is that of teenager Amanda Todd, who committed suicide after half-nude photos were posted online – she could not escape ridicule even after she moved schools, because photos remained online . Because real life actions are not enough to manage consequences of humiliating personal data, new ways suitable for the digital sphere have to be created, and that way is the right to be forgotten.
It is not true that people cannot manage consequences from their action online. It might only seem so but that is because the issues around personal data have emerged relatively recently, so we are still learning to deal with them. Individuals are learning how to manage their personal data online responsibly to make sure such humiliating situations do not occur. There are resources and programmes on how to talk to children about using the internet and other digital devices, including sexting, responsibly . The same way, there are and should be calls for the society to be considerate towards victims of personal data abuse and be less abusive online.
The right to be forgotten is premised on the idea that internet requires additional rights beyond those in the real world. Offline there is no right to demand that people do not to talk about or show photos of your embarrassing moments. Provided that there is no privacy breach, once something is out in public, you cannot take it back. There is no rule enabling you to be forgotten in real life, even if things you have done harm you. Why then do rules have to be different for the internet?
In 21st century the internet has become an integral part of our lives and of human communication that it is in fact just another reality for us. We do the same things there as we do in real life – socialise, engage in our hobbies etc. The only difference is that the internet provides us with greater opportunities, such as reaching more people, but that does not change the principle that human interaction online is pretty much the same as offline. If there is no right to be forgotten in real life, there should not be one in the digital one.
The internet is different from reality since the magnitude of consequences you might suffer is much greater. While there might be a school laughing at you over something in real life, on the internet it might be the whole world. We accept ridicule and embarrassment in real life not just because it happens, but also because the effect is not so overwhelming in the majority of cases. People get bored of the news and stop talking, while in the digital era new people can always find you and laugh at you – memories fade, photos and videos online do not. So internet is different from the real life and requires new rules.
Moreover, the right to be forgotten is not applicable to the real life not because of a principle, but because we cannot enforce it. We can’t delete people’s memories. But we can delete information online.
Having a right to be forgotten means that people can be less responsible about what they share and how they act on the internet. Knowing that they can always remove all trace of what they did relieves people of the necessity to consider the consequences of what they are doing online. This is especially true for young adults: they often post unflattering information, such as pictures of them drunk or half-nude, or write offensive comments for the pay-out of immediate popularity in their peer group. However, what also prevents them from doing this is thinking about how that might affect them in the future. When they know that after some time they can delete their digital trace completely there is nothing preventing them from acting irresponsibly in hope of popularity. Such irresponsible behaviour then puts a burden on the state to fix the mess by applying and overseeing the right to be forgotten.
We expect people to want to use the right to be forgotten mostly when the information on the web is actually hurting them. That means that, in the most common scenario, people would face negative consequences before they can use the right, otherwise why bother one-self with engaging the legal system? However a lack of responsibility is not a charge that can be levied at everyone, often they just could not foresee the consequences. Being responsible is premised on the idea that you know the results of your actions. When you do not and cannot know them – because maybe that photo will be a problem in 10 years – no amount of thinking about an issue is going to make it better.
People’s digital footprint, though of no public interest at the moment, might be useful in the future. It is a common practice in courts to investigate a person’s character or motives to check for their probability of committing a crime. Photos, videos, comments and blogs can shed light on these issues should the person be investigated under law. For instance, racist or sexist youtube comments might be of use in a trial where a defendant denies his/her actions were a result of racial or gender hatred; blogs, photos and videos a person posts and shares, and their internet searches can serve to assess what the person is like. Digital footprints can be used not only to sentence people, but also to prove their innocence. Given that discerning people’s motives and a character is a vital part of the legal process that is also very elusive, having access to their online behaviour is very useful. Digital information thus can be a useful tool to bring about justice and the right to be forgotten would forgo this opportunity as people could just delete everything about themselves.
People’s digital footprint, though it might be indicative of who a person is, is not a perfect representation of them or of their entire character. People act differently on the internet behind a screen, and sometimes some anonymity, than in real life because they feel free of social norms. But in real life social norms exist and people adhere to them, meaning that their internet activity cannot be directly linked to their real life actions. Finally, we cannot expect people to constantly leave personal data on the internet, which means we cannot get a consistent view of a person’s character or their personal development. E.g. someone’s leaving a racist comment 10 years ago does not mean they are still racist now. All this is not just useless for the judicial process; it can actually harm justice by giving false representations of people, which will lead to unfair convictions (or unfair acquittals). For instance, the defence in the famous Trayvon Martin case used digital photos of Trayvon smoking weed or posing as a gangster to present him as a thug and a threat, even though these photos were typical of how young people present themselves, and had no connection to the actual crime .
 BBC News 'EU proposes 'right to be forgotten' by internet firms', 23 January 2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16677370
 Data guidance, ‘EU@: right to be forgotten is now the right to erasure’, http://www.dataguidance.com/news.asp?id=2119, 22 October 2013
 European Union Agency for network and information security, ‘The right to be forgotten – between expectations and practice’ http://www.enisa.europa.eu/activities/identity-and-trust/library/deliverables/the-right-to-be-forgotten, 20 November 2012
 Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on the Right to be forgotten, 25 Oct 2011, http://www.iiea.com/events/the-right-to-be-forgotten?gclid=CNWRwLefirsCFZLKtAodyjAAew
 What NOT to post on Facebook http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/01/what-not-to-post-on-facebook_n_764338.html#s156748&title=Your_Mothers_Maiden
 Newsweek, Internet memes: Star wars kid, http://2010.newsweek.com/top-10/internet-memes/the-star-wars-kid.html
 Mcleans, ’10 years later, ‘Star wars kid’ speaks out’ http://www2.macleans.ca/2013/05/09/10-years-later-the-star-wars-kid-speaks-out/, 9 May 2013
 Jezebel, ‘Revenge porn: hard to persecute, harder on the psyche’, http://jezebel.com/5057511/revenge-porn-hard-to-prosecute-harder-on-the-psyche, 10 January 2008
 Jezebel, ‘Rejoice, Prolific Sexters: California Passes Anti-Revenge Porn Law’, http://jezebel.com/rejoice-prolific-sexters-california-passes-anti-reven-1440313190, 10 February 2013
 The Guardian, ‘Amanda Todd's suicide and social media's sexualisation of youth culture’, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/26/amanda-todd-suicide-social-media-sexualisation, 26 October 2012
 American Academy of Pediatrics, ‘Talking to Kids and Teens About Social Media and Sexting’ http://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/news-features-and-safety-tips/pages/Talking-to-Kids-and-Teens-About-Social-Media-and-Sexting.aspx
 Huffington Post, ‘New Trayvon Martin Case Evidence: Defense Team Releases Photos, Texts That Teen Had On His Phone’, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/23/trayvon-martin-evidence-photos-texts_n_3327658.html, 23 April, 2013