The right to know comes before the right to be forgotten

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The right to know comes before the right to be forgotten

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On May 13, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) delivered a ruling that acknowledges the “right to be forgotten.” Mario Costeja Gonzalez, a lawyer based in Spain, demanded that the press, which reported him being forced to auction a property he owned, and Google, which showed the article in its search results, remove the article and search result. He argued that it was unfair for the search engine to show articles on the auction because he had already paid his debts and regained his property. The court ruled that Google must remove search results that linked to articles about Gonzalez.

The key to the ruling is the “right to be forgotten.” Although it is a phrase that is easy to understand and easy to sympathize with, one should consider the drawbacks of the right to be forgotten before claiming it. The ruling is noteworthy because it demanded that Google remove search results linking to the articles, not the articles themselves; this can threaten the very essence of Internet searches.

People commonly want to hide their shameful pasts. Criminal records restrict the social activities of ex-convicts even after they serve their sentences. That is why many people refrain from committing crimes. But what will happen if people can permanently remove any articles that contain information about their shameful pasts or criminal records from Internet search engines?

We live in an era when one’s reputation is determined by his or her impact on the Internet or on social services. As a result, it is highly unlikely to find vicious comments on Facebook or Google+ where people show their real identity.

In other words, the “Internet reputation system” is restraining online scoundrelism. However, if one can easily remove his or her improper online behaviors, it would be difficult for people to benefit from the virtuous cycle of the Internet reputation system. They can just delete their dirty past.

The problem will become more serious when candidates of public elections start to demand the right to be forgotten. If people running for elections can remove their criminal records or other unfavorable information about themselves from search results, then Internet searches will hinder citizens from making the right choice.

Although the ECJ ruling articulated that it is “not applicable to widely known public figures,” the criteria of determining whether one is a public figure or not are very vague. As a result, Internet service providers are likely to voluntarily remove links to personal information that pose risks of facing lawsuits.

The collective intelligence system can collapse as well. Wikipedia is composed of information collected from people around the world. In order to retain objectivity, Wikipedia requires that its pages on people who are alive cite credible newspapers or online sources only. If Wikipedia removed articles that contain unfavorable content toward specific people, the “Internet censorship era,” as Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, puts it, will begin. It will even threaten the existence of Wikipedia, the world’s fifth-most frequently visited website.

We should think again. The right to know for all is more important than the right to be forgotten for some. The debate on the right to be forgotten requires a more careful and comprehensive approach.

By Lee Man-jai, distinguished fellow, Advanced Institutes of Convergence Technology, SNU


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