The right to be forgotten is a slippery slope

Rob Powell/Telecom Ramblings
04 Jun 2014

I have been reading with some amusement and some trepidation the rapid advancement of this ‘right to be forgotten’ concept in Europe. It’s the sort of thing that sounds great when it comes out of the mouths of politicians and those with particularly egregious cases, sounds even better to lawyers, and drive those who design and build the stuff to perhaps retire early.

The idea is that search engines must delete stuff from their indexes when the situation warrants. There are certainly cases where this would make obvious sense, and plenty where it doesn’t too. Two things worry me though. 1) how to handle the 90% that aren’t black & white in a fair and transparent manner, and 2) how to scale it so such a ‘right’ is available to all and not just those with sufficient money & influence.

The proper situations have to do with “the nature of the information in question and its sensitivity for the data subject’s private life and on the interest of the public in having that information, an interest which may vary, in particular, according to the role played by the data subject in public life”. The lawyers can’t wait to get their hands on language like that, think of all those billable hours.

But I’m not a lawyer, I’m the owner, operator, and developer of a website. When I imagine the design of a website of any sort that scalably collects truly massive amounts data from the web in order to make it easy to find while creating a back door to manually remove stuff on a case by case basis gives me nightmares.

Actually making stuff disappear is much easier than the truisms let on, take it from someone who sees the web lose stuff all the time trying to keep track of fiber maps and such. Trying to automate a case by case judgement call is what would be impossible. It’s the sort of thing Dilbert would look at his pointy-haired boss and say ‘You told them we could do what?’

Actually though, such a system has been built. It already exists and at massive scale. One where search results are filtered through a lens of what the powers that be have decided is the proper balance between what should be there and what shouldn’t. One that has brought search engines to heel and employs more than a million people to manually catch the wrong stuff every day and make sure it gets forgotten or re-forgotten ASAP.

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