Ethics: The Right to Be Forgotten vs Censorship

Recently France?s privacy commission ruled that the European Union?s ?Right to Be Forgotten? law applies to Google worldwide, not just Google?s European operations. Google?s response, that such a ruling extends French law beyond France?s borders, was rejected by the French regulatory body.

In theory, the right to be forgotten sounds like something that we should have. Why should your drunken university days show up in search results twenty years later? Must everybody know everything about everyone else? Can?t we have a little privacy somewhere?

In practice, such a ruling, if corporations are forced to implement it, would be tantamount to censorship. Any country could declare that any bad news was to be forgotten and search engines would have to comply.

There are scenarios where a right to be forgotten would be good, but others that clearly show how it could be abused. Let?s look at one of each.

Scenario 1: Amanda Knox
Amanda Knox was a young American living in Italy when her British roommate was gruesomely murdered. Somehow, Knox and hr then boyfriend weren?t only accused, they were found guilty of murder, even as another, unrelated person was also found guilty of the same crime. Eventually, and it is a loooong eventually, Knox was cleared of the murder.

Shouldn?t she have the right to have references to her ordeal, especially to the guilty verdict, removed from Google? To me this would seem like an easy ?Yes.? If I were Google and if she were to ask to be forgotten, I?d be tempted to do it.

Now let?s look at the other side.

Scenario 2: Ali Mohammed al-Nimr
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr is a young Saudi man, a Shia?a, as apparently that?s important. Saudi Arabia is mostly Sunni. Ali was 17 years old when he attended an anti-government demonstration. He was arrested, thrown in prison and as of this writing, is scheduled to be executed. Not just executed: He is to be beheaded, then his headless body is to be crucified in his home town for all to witness. Amnesty International is fighting to save this boy?s life.

If our hypothetical ?Right to Be Forgotten? law is enforced worldwide, couldn?t Saudi Arabia claim that to protect the dignity of the child, all mention of him should be removed from Google. This apparent act of kindness would make it much harder for critics of the government to monitor its activities.

How can any organization be left with the task (or entrusted with the task) of differentiating between these two scenarios. How could any such organization stand against or above a country?s laws if those laws are applicable extraterritorial?

I have questions, but I don’t have answers.

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