News and Media

RIWI in Canada’s National Post: On the Internet, we should have a right to context, rather than a right to be forgotten

By Neil Seeman and Bob Seeman | Originally posted in Canada’s National Post
There has been much consternation among privacy samurais and free expression absolutists about the European judicial ruling requiring Google to remove information about individuals who wish that information to be “forgotten.” Some say it is an infringement of freedom of speech and limits research — for example, a human resource department’s review of a prospective CEO’s controversial past. Google says that it is simply impractical to implement. Others say that the elusive new right, even if implemented, would be impossible to enforce; other websites or search engines will find a way to disseminate the information.
We need a more common sense approach to serious online allegations. We propose a requirement that allegedly objectionable information be displayed in context: Google and other search engines would have to permit the individual or entity involved to have a rebuttal prominently displayed, along with a link to additional information.
This compromise will not satisfy everyone, but it will satisfy most… and it can actually be implemented.
It would help our prospective CEO friend, an experienced and honourable businessman, against whom a spurious claim of civil fraud was made that shows up every time someone searches his name. He could explain how this claim had no basis, was an abuse of the legal system by a company with no assets against which to counter-claim for defamation. He could also explain how the claim was ultimately dropped in return for the legal extortion from him of the costs he would have had to expend to defend the spurious claim. (One would hope this would dissuade small-time grasping lawyers from taking on such preposterous claims.)
Our recommendation would help the young graduate applying for his first job explain who he really is, and not who he was pretending to be when “self-broadcasting” to his social network of 2,000 “friends.” It would allow the convicted criminal the opportunity to explain how he is now a different person. Correctional sentences do sometimes actually correct.
What’s the big picture? Today we can learn more about someone in minutes than the FBI could in months prior to the ascendance of the Web. We can be overwhelmed with information and misinformation about any subject or person in the world.
Does this mean, as some say, the “end of privacy”? Partly. Privacy is beginning to mean something different. The concept of privacy has not been static over history. The caveman had no privacy; neither did those living in a small town two centuries ago — or even now. Everyone knows everyone else’s personal business in a small-enough town. Migration to the big cities in the industrial age afforded individuals the sort of privacy that we had come to expect prior to the Web and the technological revolution that has accompanied it.
In a corporate sense, this matters beyond Google’s search results or Sony’s corporate e-mails. Consider pervasive audio and video recording. You cannot assume that any conversation that you are having is not being recorded. Almost everyone you meet now has a silent, undetectable audio or video recording device in their pocket — their mobile phone.
It also means that emails executives write are less secure than sending a postcard, and can often be easily searched for and recovered years after the they get sent. Those emails can then effortlessly be copied or simply published on the Web for anyone to read … deploying a simple Google search, against which there is currently no recourse to intelligent rebuttal.
What do we do in the face of all of this? Throw up our hands and give up? Be ultra-careful in what we do, say or write? Pass strict privacy laws with serious consequences?
If we start to put everything into the context of the real world, we will relax. We will accept people as individuals with human flaws. That is the future of the intelligent Web.
Have no doubt: individuals and states are not going to gain a new “right to be forgotten.” But we may be moving in the direction of gaining a right to have all our actions considered in context and without the sometimes rash and incendiary attitudes that have gone hand-in-hand with people’s previous, and lawyerly, expectation of privacy.
Goodbye judge-defined privacy. Hello reality: the contextual organization of knowledge, written by the people, for the people.
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