Freedom of Speech vs. “The Right To Be Forgotten”

This week’s topics were really interesting and I have some conflicting feelings about how the law affects media and vice versa. The main thing I want to focus on is how European countries and the United States have differing views on privacy versus freedom of speech. In the United States, freedom of speech is the most basic of human rights, and something that is fought for tirelessly by its citizens. In Europe however, the right to privacy is more important and as the article notes for a good reason, as European’s dealt with merciless regimes that used their information to kill and jail citizens. I can see the perspective from both sides; is it better to have any and all information online for anyone to see, or should people be allowed to request the removal of potentially harmful information from Google searches?

In The New Yorker piece “The Solace of Oblivion” the issue of removing potentially damaging information from the internet was discussed. The article goes into detail about the Costeja case in which the Spanish Data Protection Agency and later the European Court of Justice ruled that Google had to remove certain links from its search results about Costeja. The European Court of Justice also took it a step further and created broader regulations about Google search results. According to The New Yorker article the court ordered that, “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.”

When you look at that initial ruling it seems like something that could lead to a slippery slope where people, particularly those in power, are able to expunge their dirty secrets from the public. This is something that could be damaging to our freedom of speech and could also lead to the inability of finding facts online. The law as it stands now seems to limit this, but there is a potential for further reaching rulings, especially if they’re backed by leaders that would have their own interests in mind.

There is another side to this coin as well though. In the article, the story of the Catsouras family is discussed, and their fight to have the removal of crime scene photos of their daughter’s death removed from the internet. This is the kind of the story and circumstance that makes you give pause to the idea that “right to be forgotten” is that bad. Who wouldn’t agree that this family should be able to have these horrendous photos removed from search engines, and that these photos have and continue to cause them undue harm?

It’s these kind of circumstances that make me believe that there is a place in the United States for these laws, but on a very limited scope. In my opinion, I think that when certain items, such as the crime scene photos and other items have have caused undue harm, are easy to search and find online, there needs to be some protection for citizens. Other things like long-past acquittals in cases, and even very old convictions can be extremely harmful for people. These things, while facts, are often no longer relevant and people do deserve the right to move on with their lives. This is a very vague and broad idea though, and if such laws were to happen in the United States there needs to be very well-constructed wording and processes put in.

Then there is the issue of misinformation, especially misinformation that is purposefully created and distributed. Especially with social media sites reluctance to disallow or stop even misleading political ads from their platforms, we need to think about where we draw the line. Can we and should we allow people to remove misinformation or misleading information about them from search engines? Maybe we decide that only private citizens can, but what if that information later is revealed to be true or relevant? With the seemingly increase in prominence of misinformation, what role will it play in the fight between freedom of speech and the right to be forgotten?

The answer to the freedom of speech versus right to be forgotten concepts isn’t black and white. I believe that both are very important rights for citizens and that one cannot compromise the other. We can not go down the road of censorship, but we also could and should shield citizens from certain very harmful pieces of information affecting their lives. This is going to be a debate for years to come, and one that will only get more convoluted and tricky as the scope of the internet, social media, and purposeful misinformation continues to grow.