Is EU's 'right to be forgotten' really the 'right to edit the truth'?

Is EU's 'right to be forgotten' really the 'right to edit the truth'?

Analysts say it's doubtful the EU's ruling against Google will be repeated in the U.S.

With Europe's top court ordering Google to allow people to basically edit their online personal histories, some wonder what this will mean for finding the truth online.

However, it's doubtful the ruling will be mimicked in the U.S., according to analysts who say the European Union is tougher on issues of personal privacy.

"I don't think we have the appetite for this," said Fatemeh Khatibloo, an analyst with Forrester. "We don't have the same sort of expectations that the government will protect our privacy like they do in Europe. We just don't have the precedent for it."

Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said he when he first heard about the ruling, he wondered how long it would be before it extended from individuals to businesses, and how long before privacy organizations push for a similar ruling in the U.S.

Khatibloo noted the EU has far more privacy rules than the U.S. does. She doesn't expected the U.S. to follow the EU's lead on this "right to be forgotten" issue.

However, several months ago, a similar right-to-be-forgotten law was passed in California, but it applies only to minors, Khatibloo said. The law give minors the right to have information or images about them removed from online sites.

Khatibloo said she doubts such a law would ever extend to adults here, especially on a federal level. "I just do not think it will happen in the U.S.," she added.

On Tuesday, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that people can tell Google, as well as other search engines like Microsoft's Bing or Yahoo, to delete links to their outdated information on the Internet. People, the court contends have the right to be forgotten.

People can file requests for information removal directly with the search engine. Then the company must examine the request to determine if the information in question is still relevant. If it isn't, the links to web pages containing that information must be removed, unless maintaining easy access to the information is in the best interest of the public, the court said.

The court's decision ( .pdf format) overrides the opinion of the EU Advocate General, who said last year that there was no universal right to be forgotten.

Google said it was disappointed by the ruling and is still reviewing it.

"This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general," said a Google spokesperson in an email to Computerworld. "We are very surprised that it differs so dramatically from the Advocate General's opinion and the warnings and consequences that he spelled out. We now need to take time to analyze the implications."

Without a search engine's help, a lot of information about someone's life would be very difficult to find, and that, according to Khatibloo and Olds, means people can edit their online lives.

"It gives people the ability to delete the bad or embarrassing and keep the good," Old said. "They can create their own truth about themselves. What I don't like about this ruling is that it doesn't have anything to do with truth. It seems to only be concerned with covering up derogatory or embarrassing information."

Khatibloo called the move "pretty terrifying."

"Overall, it feels like a very short-term win of the idea of how to define privacy and give people control of their data, but it's really a loss for the open Internet," she added. "It puts the onus on the search engines to hide links or delete links. We're not holding people responsible for the content they put out there but that search engines have to deal with this real technical problem."

The EU ruling might be a relief for people who want to wipe away easy access to photos of them appearing drunk, stories about a college-age arrest or an old lawsuit filed against them.

However, it also means anyone doing a search on someone might not get the full story.

"One of the individual cases that prompted this ruling concerns a doctor who didn't want an old malpractice suit coming up in search results about him," said Olds. "Speaking for myself, I'd like to see if my doctor has had malpractice problems in the past, and am not wild about my doctor being able to delete this info from the Web. Now the info might be available someplace else, but if it's not shown on the major search engines, then I most likely won't see it."

Khatibloo noted that the EU didn't offer enough specifics about what is relevant and what can or cannot be deleted, which will raise some legal problems.

"It's all left open to interpretation," she said. "They're basically tying Google and other search engines up in court for God knows how long."

The EU's ruling also may spur some to take Internet searches into their own hands.

"It seems to me this is opening up the door to more darknet stuff," said Khatibloo. "We'll start to see browsers that show those hidden search results. They won't be a Google. They won't be a Yahoo. They'll be some entity that takes these archives and finds stuff that others hide. We're opening up the door to vigilantes to Internet truthiness."

Scott Strawn, an analyst with IDC, said he has some concerns about the ruling's effect on the quality of information that can be found on the Internet, but he's not too concerned.

"That people can edit their own kind of histories? It doesn't bother me," he said. "You can do that now in different ways in different platforms, like pulling pictures off your Facebook account. It's not all that strange that you can pull other data down about you."

It's also a ruling that shouldn't cost Google, or other search engines, any revenue but will cost them countless headaches and administrative work.

"Google will have to build out some administrative capabilities in order to deal with the various deletion requests they're sure to start getting from EU citizens," Olds said. "This is a very slippery slope and sets a bad precedent. And they should brace themselves because privacy advocates in the U.S. will lobby for the same type of regulations here."

This article, Is EU's 'right to be forgotten' really the 'right to edit the truth'?, was originally published at

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is

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