Google, Facebook and The Right To Be Forgotten

According to the Stanford Law Review At the end of January, the European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship, Viviane Reding, announced the European Commission’s proposal to create a sweeping new privacy right—the “right to be forgotten.”

This topic has been highly debated in Europe for several years and is finally part of a new, broad proposed data protection regulation.  Reding purports that the new proposal is a modest expansion of existing data privacy laws.  The Right To Be Forgotten legislation could end up being the biggest threat to free speech on the Internet in the coming decade.

The Right To Be Forgotten Data Protection Could Cost Companies Millions of Dollars

For companies that make their living on user generated content and social media, this law is no joke.  If people would now have the right to remove viral photos from Google and Facebook, we can easily seeing these companies losing up to 2% of their revenue.  Widely distributed content generates clicks and page views and that is precisely how big social media companies make their money.  It is imperative any legislation that is passed has a correct balance of privacy, free speech and also keeps the internet an open place – we don’t need to be turning into China over here.  Censorship is bad.

The Past Is The Past – But Not on Facebook

The main idea of the right to be forgotten addresses the issue of deleting post digital content about yourself.  Maybe you were a young buck in college and everything about you on Facebook is related to red solo cups, keg stands, women and partying.  However, now it is time to graduate and begin job seeking.  I know for a fact when I tried to change my car insurance provider, the first thing he did was perform a Google search on my name.  When applying for a new job fresh out of college, this could be disastrous for many people.  Every photo, tweet, status update and blog post can live for years and years in these databases.

Escaping Your Past Online is Extremely Difficult

All citizens of Europe and the United States face the same challenge of being able to wipe the slate clean of their digital footprint.  The internet records everything and never forgets.  It is VERY difficult to erase yourself online.  There is also potential risk to minors who reveal extremly personal details on social networks.  Thus, Reding modified how her legislation reads as such:

“If an individual no longer wants his personal data to be processed or stored by a data controller, and if there is no legitimate reason for keeping it, the data should be removed from their system.”

But Doesn’t The Right To Be Forgotten Violate Free Speech Laws?

On the surface, sure, this law looks like it has HUGE potential to violate free speech laws.  If I can remove every single digital reference about myself on the internet that essentially would mean that no news reporter, blogger or individual could mention my name in any creative works.  However, this is not the direction Reding saw the law headed and thus revised the wording of the proposed legislation to define the data people would have the right to remove as:

“personal data [people] have given out themselves.”

This is the key provision of the proposed legislation.  It essentially makes you the owner of the content you supply to social networks and web robots and crawlers.

The Right To Be Forgotten and Data Ownership

This brings up another interesting question.  If individual users have the right to be forgotten, thus having more ownership over the content they have created, could we see a point in time where there is public outcry and not only do people want to be able to delete their content, but may also want to be compensated for the content they create?

User Generated Content Generates Huge Revenues

It is estimated that users provide social media giants Facebook and Google with billions of pieces of content each month – the amount of content generated on these two networks is exponentially higher than the content that is generated by traditional news and media outlets.

Facebook and Twitter use this content and monetize it, however, the users are not compensated for the content.  What if a photo I upload goes viral and generates 500,000 likes and 7 million views and is responsible for generating $1000 in revenues.  I can see a point in time where that photo and the revenue it generates would need to be split between the social network and the user that posted it.  It only makes sense to move toward this point.  It will promote better content creation by social media users and increase revenues for companies by enticing its users to create more meaningful contnet, sharing more and also increasing the amount of content being created.

Three Categories of Content

With the right to be forgotten, we can see three different categories of content being addressed:

Deleting Content Posted By The Individual

The first category would cover content posted by the individual that wants to take it down.  If I post a photo to Facebook and later want to take it down, I should be able to remove it without objection.  Not only should I be able to remove it, I should be provided tools by the social network to perform the action on my own.

Deleting Content Posted By The Individual but Copied by Others

The second category of content is a bit more interesting.  This involves content posted by one individual but copied by several others onto their networks.  According to the proposed legislation the user would be able to request all of the copied content be removed from any networks that it was copied onto.

Someone creates original content about me – do I have the right to delete it?

The third area of content is in relation to third parties creating original content about you.  If someone writes a blog or posts a status update that is mean, embarrassing or accusatory, would I have the right to delete it?  According to the legislation, the content would indeed need to be taken down so long as it does not fall into the journalistic, artistic, or literary exception.

So we can see this is indeed a hot topic and has the ability to impact the internet as we know it in a profound way.  I can only imagine the manpower it will take to enact these requests.  Google, Facebook and Twitter are going to have to either create automated tools, modify their systems or hire a pile of workers in order to handle the volume of take down requests I see coming.