European Action Focuses Debate On Right To Be Forgotten

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Recent action by the 28 privacy regulators in Europe is focusing new attention on the so-called “right to be forgotten.”  The right is the topic this week at U.S. News and World Report’s Debate Club where I make the case that the right simply brings into the Digital Age the protections of privacy by obscurity.

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), also advocates for the right saying that the right to privacy is global.

You’ll recall that last May the European Court of Justice ruled that Europeans have the right to ask Internet search engines like Google to remove links from their name to information that is inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant or excessive.

Google has been honoring the right only on its  European Internet domains like,, and  Last week the  Article 29 Working Party said the right should also apply as well to Google’s primary domain that we in the United States all use.

That announcement by the working party — the 28 privacy regulators from across Europe — is what caught U.S. News and World Report’s attention and prompted editors to organize the online debate. Here are a few key points I make in my article:

It’s important to understand what the right to be forgotten actually does. It is not censorship. It simply restores an element of “privacy by obscurity” to the digital age, restoring a balance between the “right to know” and privacy. The original published article is not removed or altered; it remains on the Internet. The link from a person’s name may be removed, but the article can still be accessed using other search terms.
Importantly, removal is not automatic. There needs to be a balance between the individual’s privacy and public’s right to know in making a decision to remove a link, the court ruled…
Before the digital age, if I did something young and foolish, when I was young and foolish, people forgot about it as I matured. While the details might exist somewhere in a paper archive, you needed some effort and motivation to dig them up. Contrast that to today: All the information that once would have been generally forgotten over time – and likely is really no longer relevant to who I now am – is available with a few clicks of a mouse.

EPIC’s Rotenberg makes this argument for the right to be forgotten:

Search engines provide a valuable service to Internet users. On that point there is no dispute. But that doesn’t mean they are above the law or ethical responsibilities. Simply because private information can be found on the Internet does not mean it should be made widely available. The European Court of Justice wisely decided that commercial search firms should remove links to private information when asked. That policy will only work if the search company removes the links across all domains for which it provides search.

Arguing against the right to be forgotten are Claude Barfield from the American Enterprise Institute; Jules Polonetsky and Chris Wolf of the Future of Privacy Forum. Harvard Prof. Jonathan Zittrain is down with a “maybe.”

I encourage you to take a look at all five articles.  After reading them you can register whether you agree or disagree with our opinions.  

“The natural protection afforded to privacy by obscurity has disappeared. We need to focus on what this sea change means to society and how to deal with it,” I concluded. “The right to be forgotten offers a clear path forward to help protect our privacy in the digital age. Americans deserve the same right to be forgotten that is now being invoked in Europe. Companies like Google that repeatedly claim to care about users’ privacy should be ashamed that they are not treating people on both sides of the Atlantic the same way.”

John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson is an American consumer rights advocate and former journalist. Since 2005, he has worked for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group, as the lead researcher on Inside Google, the group's effort to educate the public about Google's dominance over the internet and the need for greater online privacy.

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