Could the right to be forgotten lead to the right to re-write history?

By Vincent Potier

When the concept of the World Wide Web was created 25 years ago it was founded on an open, democratic and decentralised platform. Over the past quarter century it’s changed the world as we know it, opening up commercial, social and learning opportunities for the global population. But the internet of today does more than just share knowledge and information; it also fundamentally underpins the right to freedom of speech.

That right has been the basis on which dictatorial regimes have been overturned and more democratic processes have been introduced and upheld. However, somewhat counter-intuitively to the internet’s founding purpose, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that internet giant Google must amend some search results at the request of ordinary people. Is this the beginning of a move towards the right to re-write history?

Let’s first consider the intention and context behind the ruling. The UK’s data privacy watchdog, The Information Commissioner’s Office, said that it would focus on "evidence of damage and distress to individuals" when reviewing complaints about Google’s search results. I think most people would agree that the intention of the ruling by the EU (protecting the privacy of citizens) is good. After all, against a backdrop of scandals around spying via the internet and the revelations flying around regarding NSA and GCHQ, many could be forgiven for not seeing the downsides of this momentous ruling. On the surface, the ECJ is simply protecting and upholding the rights of citizens. Right? Whilst the intention may be clear and pure, the consequences of such a ruling go beyond good intentions.

The simple truth is that you can’t negotiate with the greatest advancement in the cause of free speech ever. The internet has already changed the way society works and has transformed the very definition of what privacy is. Neither legislators, governments, nor the internet giants can go back to the past when information was in the hands of the few.

Court rulings should not be decided based upon morals or the opportunity to go after big tech companies, but protecting the interests of real people. We need to be very careful that the right to be forgotten doesn’t lead to the right to re-write history. If we’re not, what could be next? Wealthy people using expensive lawyers to make sure certain aspects of their past go unnoticed? Media criticism being censored because it bothers influential politicians?

The line between the right to be forgotten and straightforward censorship is so thin it should remind us that good intentions, when not thought through, can lead to disastrous consequences.

About the author

Vincent Potier is COO of ad tech start-up Captify, a search retargeting specialist. Before Captify, Vincent was the Managing Director for Vonage UK and Canada where he was responsible for the financial and commercial turnaround of the businesses. Vincent has extensive sales, marketing and general management experience and has spent his career honing his business development, management and strategy skills globally. Vincent has had a number of roles across Europe, Asia and Latin America, consulting on digital strategies in the ad tech, agency and client space. Roles include VP, Strategy & Business Development at Universal Mobile and Director of Marketing and Communications at Vizzavi.

About Captify

Captify is a company pioneering Search Retargeting in the European advertising market. Captify is British business and was founded in 2011. Supported by its own purpose built unique technology stack, Captify now dominates its sector of the industry and has a global customer base including American Express, Sony, Samsung and Warner Brothers.

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