The right to be forgotten creates ethical controversy

Credit: Ashley Chan/ Credit: Ashley Chan/

This week at Pugwash we discussed the “Right to Be Forgotten” — the concept that one can request to have personal information removed from the online public domain. We began our discussion by sharing our knowledge on what that right currently means. One member explained how at present, the European Union can force Google to take down certain search results. However, this takedown pertains, by law, to search results displayed on Google internationally and not only in the information’s country of origin.

For example, say someone in Spain commits a crime and information about this incident appears online. If the European Union decides that this information should be removed, Google must remove the results not only in the Spanish version of Google, but also in all international versions of Google.

These comments lead us to the ethical question of the meeting: Is the right to be forgotten truly a human right, or is it an excuse for governments to exert censorship power on international private corporations. One member explained how this “right” needs to be monitored very carefully so that governments do not use it as a tool to remove incriminating information about officials, thereby leading us closer to an Orwellian society where those with power can wipe information away from history that they do not like.

And, as someone else pointed out, the ability to take down certain information has been abused before: Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown — when content is removed due to copyright infringement — has certainly been abused to remove undesirable, yet legal, information. Yet someone else turned the conversation away from totalitarian fear by explaining how Google has not removed most requests, and as of yet has not been penalized for refusing to do so.

Requests to remove search results relating to crimes committed or corruption seems to have been ignored by Google, while requests to remove information about victims of abuse have been followed up. If the EU is indeed not abusing this power, and instead using it to protect abuse victims, why should we oppose their actions?

On the other hand, as another speaker countered, the removal of information from the public domain is always taking us a step away from truth. Information can always be ignored; yet unknown information cannot be learnt.

Even if information online is not true, by removing information we are still limiting our understanding of the current state of people’s beliefs. And if the online information is in fact false, shouldn’t there be a flood of other online articles that point this misinformation out?

We then began to wonder what exactly the future of the “the right to be forgotten” is, regardless of the intrinsic morality of this law. Some members thought that it was only a matter of time until this law will begin to take effect in the U.S. However, another person responded to this by suggesting that the law follows from the more socialistic governments in the EU, and not vice-versa. Thus, as long as the power of the American government over free expression remains checked, it is unlikely that we will see this law creeping into the states.

Finally, we wondered whether humans would learn to be more careful with their personal information in a digital age, thereby rendering this law unneeded. Some people thought this was likely, while others believed that carelessness about our privacy was part of our human nature.

We finished our meeting with an uncertain viewpoint on this law, yet perhaps with a greater understanding of human politics, morality, and behavior.

Student Pugwash is a non-advocacy, educational organization that discusses the implications of science. This article is a summary of last week’s discussion on the right to be forgotten.