Leiden Law Blog

No one wants to be forgotten

No one wants to be forgotten

The point of living is to make an impression. It may not be an everlasting one, but at least we’d like to be remembered by some. This impression should not be just any impression, instead we tweak and play with who we are and how others see us. We also want to be able to correct wrong impressions, hide youthful mistakes and fight slanderous posts. Whereas in the pre-internet days awkward or misguided impressions naturally vanished in the mire of fading memories and stuffy archives only to be retrieved with effort, today they are—almost—inescapable and we have to accept and live with them. Or are they?

Recently, the European Court of Justice made a decision which both is remarkable and important in the recent case Google v Costeja González. The court endorsed a right to be forgotten under existing data protection law and, thus, anticipated the introduction of such a right under the proposed data protection regulation. The case concerned a Spanish citizen who wanted Google to remove links to a 1998 newspaper article about the repossession of his home. The decision requires search engines to remove information at request, when it is "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed”.

Unsurprisingly, the case has been criticized as a step towards censorship (sic!) and against innovation. Freedom of information concerns definitely need to be taken seriously, however much of this critique reflects commercial interests rather than a concern for human flourishing. Reasons why the right to be forgotten on the internet is so important are, for the latter, control, scale and persistence. With this decision, the European court clearly returns some control over their personal data to individuals, not only in order to deal with the worldwide scale and cast-iron persistence of the internet, but also to tackle blended and lasting digital identities created by powerful search engines. Of course many of us want to exist on Google, but their clever algorithms do not necessarily coincide with our—more or less humble—ideas of impression management.

The importance of the decision lies in finding a more delicate and dignified balance between what digital technologies (and the companies that design and use them) accomplish and what people want. Clearly, this is not an easy task given the fuzziness and complexity of human needs, but the case could surely be an important trigger for wonderful as well as lucrative innovations that are more respectful of them.

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