cyber attack 311 R.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
European Commission Justice Minister Viviane Reding is planning to introduce a
new online right: the right to be forgotten. The proposed law would give users
the right to remove personal data from the computers of businesses that collect
and save it. One particular target of the intended directive is Facebook, which
is believed to retain data on customers even after they delete their
The “right to be forgotten” was not invented by
This right actually exists in a number of other contexts. In the
criminal context, many jurisdictions allow a convict to apply to have his
conviction sealed or expunged after a certain number of years; juvenile
convictions are often sealed automatically after a certain period. In the credit
context, credit reporting acts often designate a “statute of limitations,”
beyond which delinquencies cannot be reported; in the United States this is
In both of these cases, the right to be forgotten has both
an individual-rights justification and a public-interest
One basic human right is privacy: keeping facts about
oneself private. Committing a crime or missing a payment may justify some
limitations on that right, but they don’t necessarily justify publicizing your
misdeeds to everyone forever.
Having some kind of time limit creates a
In addition, there is a public interest in rehabilitating both
criminals and deadbeats. Perhaps the employer has a reasonable right to not hire
ex-convicts. But as a society we don’t want the ex-cons to return to crime or to
live on welfare, so we conclude that the best compromise is to allow some kind
of limitation on the price they pay. Likewise we can understand why a lender
wants to avoid lending to someone who defaulted long ago. But we would like to
give these people a chance to return to full social and economic function, and
that can be the dominant consideration.
What about the case of Internet
data? What is the ethical justification for the right to be forgotten? Losing
your privacy to a computer is not quite the same as losing it to a human being,
and it’s pretty unlikely there is actually any person in Facebook or Google who
is perusing your five-year-old deleted Facebook page and who actually knows or
cares who you are.
Part of it is presumably the fear of hacking. The
concern is that sooner or later those defunct Facebook pages will become
accessible to a clever teenager.
An additional consideration is not one
of privacy but of ownership. We don’t mind if Google makes money off our
information, but if the information is truly “ours,” then it might be fair to
demand that they pay something for it. This would be comparable in some ways to
the reimbursement arrangement Google ultimately made with authors for Google
Books. The money Google was making was not actually at the expense of the
authors, but there was no real way to say that they made no
Ultimately, I think the “right to be forgotten” is a lot
about the right to reinvent yourself.
Consider the diary analogy. Many
people have old diaries of an old, familiar but perhaps very different self.
Quite a few are interested in keeping close tabs on these old keepsakes and
would show them only to a select few people, if at all. How would you feel if
your diary got lost? How would you feel having someone else read it, even if
that person was a total stranger? Many people would feel very embarrassed – not
because the reader would connect the diary writer with their current selves, but
because they want to put that person in their past.
Perhaps just knowing
that my old personal data is kicking around somewhere puts a damper on my
ability to move forward with my life and my identity.
considerations may not measure up to the interest we have in rehabilitating
ex-convicts, but on the other hand, the cost is not very great either. The
private and public interest in deleting the old data (or requiring payment for
it) may not be great, but the interest in keeping it around also does not seem
The European Commission now seems inclined to err, if at
all, on the side of individual firstname.lastname@example.org Asher Meir
is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent
institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).