A recent issue that has developed is the “right to be forgotten online”. This right claims that a person should be able to live their life free from the disgrace or stigma of a certain event that has occurred in the past, and argues that an individual should have the right to remove this type of information from search engines and online websites.
The debate started when Spanish citizen Mario Costeja Gonzalez went to court because information on a previous debt he owed continued to remain online even after he repaid the loan fully. He argued that the information was irrelevant considering that the legal dispute was already resolved. The European Court of Justice eventually ruled in Gonzalez’s favour, requiring Google to remove all links related to Gonzalez’s debt in 1998.
Many see eye to eye with Gonzalez, claiming that individuals have the right to privacy, but this right infringes on other rights, such as the freedom of information. Passing a law that supports the right to be forgotten online opens the doors to individuals who want to remove part of their history. But this is unfair to those who need to know this information. Employers, for example, have a right to know about the previous criminal convictions of a potential employee, and a voter, for example, has a right to know about the background of a political candidate.
Secondly, this right would be difficult to apply in real life. Even if search engines such as Google are forced to remove information that stigmatises an individual, this will have little to no effect. Online data cannot truly be removed from existence, simply because this information can be saved, downloaded and then spread among various users once it’s been published online: if Google can’t provide this information, then underground search engines will.
A parallel situation is seen with copyright violations. Although YouTube periodically removes videos that violate copyright, such as full-length feature films, many illegal streaming websites host these videos. This demonstrates that although information may be superficially deleted off Google, it cannot truly be removed from the internet.
The right to be forgotten online seems great at first – but there are a myriad of ethical and practical issues that have to be taken into consideration before it becomes a reality.