Vanishing From Cyberspace: The Right to Be Forgotten

By Alexandra Junge

Political theorist Hedley Bull has much to say about the technicalities of the international system, yet his most powerful thoughts can be found in the last sentence of his conclusion in The Anarchical Society: “It is better to recognize that we live in darkness, than pretend we see the light”. Bull was only writing in the late 1970s, before the real technological boom of the internet, and while his statement concerned international relations, I nonetheless feel that in regards to today’s circumstances it is about time that we turn this statement around: It is better to recognize we live in light, than pretend we are surrounded by darkness. Indeed, today, dark acts are difficult to cover up, and once exposed, difficult to erase. The imperative tool that has enlightened our society in these monumental ways is, namely, the Internet.

The United Nations declared the right to Internet access as a human right in 2011. Which only demonstrates the extent to which it has become an extension of our human capacity. Therefore we must acknowledge that it is our responsibility, as future leaders and actors of cyberspace, that we defend its rightful and just usage. It is here that we stop short. The permanence and the sheer vastness of this entity is a notion we still fail to grasp. The Internet is young, but expanding at a rate so rapid that it is leaving governments and legal institutions gasping for air.

From the discussion on the just usage of the Internet, is born the debate concerning the right to remove data. Indeed, shouldn’t you have the right to take down that cringe-worthy photo of you, at that college party you don’t remember, chugging champagne, while wearing nothing but purple shorts to show your Beaver spirit? Sure, it was funny 4 years ago but neither you – nor your employer – may think so anymore. This discussion leads to yet another question: what happens when we apply the same rules to other entities, such as businessmen and politicians, amongst others?

The heated, controversial debate finally resulted in the legal act: ‘The Right to be Forgotten’, otherwise know as ‘The Right to Erasure’. The rulings enacted in May 2014, stated by the European Court of Justice, agreed that information that is ruled “irrelevant, inaccurate or dated”, particularly regarding individuals, should be taken down from search engines and websites by request. Now, another peculiarity of lawmaking in cyberspace emerges regarding sovereignty, a notion rather alien to that of the Internet as there is no clear delineation of borders, ownership, or even accountability on the Internet. Sovereignty becomes blurry once it attempts to enter the realm of cyberspace, and this can have a profound impact on international relations. This is exemplified through the dispute regarding ‘The Right to be Forgotten’ between the United States and the EU. Importantly, the United States and tech-giant Google do not agree on the European Courts’ ruling and have reluctantly compromised only to the extent of taking information down from European search engine domains, while still refusing to implement such a policy on a global scale, meaning that the data may still be traceable on the global ‘.com’ search domain. Google is still battling the EU on these terms, and is currently appealing to France’s highest court, attempting to state that French data law cannot override that of global domains. Additionally, they state that their concern is rooted within the freedom of information, of the press, and of knowledge. The disagreement is not only significant for the debate regarding privacy, but also in regards to lawmaking in cyberspace. Who owns the Internet and how far does the rule of law stretch over the virtually borderless world of the web? Here we are left with more questions than answers.

Since the ruling has been enacted, several thousands have made removal requests, and the controversy continues to widen: in one case a man convicted of being affiliated with child pornography asked Google to remove the news reports of his case. Indeed, Japan’s court ordered Google to remove this data, in the hope of allowing this man to start afresh, unhindered by his past. Is this an ethical use of the Internet and data regulation? The debate rages on…

Whether for individuals or corporations, the freedom of information, and perhaps more importantly, the freedom of the removal information and thus the right to be forgotten, must be at the forefront of legal discussions. It must be a transparent, democratic process. The Internet is expanding limitlessly; if we do not pay close attention to the laws written today, we may pay the consequences tomorrow. Indeed, the darkness of the web may surround us without us noticing due to the brightness of our computer screens.

 

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