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Do You Have A "Right To Be Forgotten" On The Internet?

Children's privacy is of particular concern in Europe, even as US tech giants line up to oppose any new laws that could force Internet "de-indexing."

Get off the Internet -- if you can!
Get off the Internet -- if you can!
Damien Leloup

PARIS - What if you could, with a couple of clicks, delete from the Internet all your awkward poems, embarrassing photos or stupid posts that you published as a teenager without realizing they would be there forever?

That is a centerpiece proposal from a report by the Défenseure des Enfants (Children’s Ombudswoman), a French independent body that defends and promotes children’s rights.

The report combines recent studies on the behavior of children on the Internet, but also in front of the TV or playing video games. It underlines the issue of privacy for children and teenagers and brings up the delicate question of a possible “right to be forgotten” online – meaning the possibility for anyone to delete online contents they have created or which give out personal information they no longer want public.

In France, privacy laws only grant a right to access and correct personal information and do not have a specific protection for children. The Children’s ombudswoman recommends a series of educational measures as well as the implementation of a real “right to be forgotten” policy, where it would be possible to “erase personal information and stop their publication, in particular the personal information the person made public when they were a child.” This recommendation was also issued by the European commission in its latest proposal regarding privacy policies in the EU for the next decade.

Subtle threats, lobbying teams

But the “right to be forgotten” has many opponents, starting with Internet companies, mostly from the U.S., who are not happy about the idea of a more constraining legal framework that would force them to deal with countless requests. For them, such a law would at best be impossible to apply but could also jeopardize the sacrosanct freedom of expression and information.

At the beginning of 2012, when the EU proposal was made public, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg subtly threatened European countries rethinking the company’s place in the EU, saying “the right regulatory environment” was necessary to create national subsidiaries of the social networking giant. Throughout the year, several companies including Facebook and Google reinforced their lobbying teams in Brussels.

In June, Christopher Graham, head of the British Information Commissioner's Office – the independent advice and guidance body for data protection and freedom of information – accused EU commissioner Viviane Reding of trying to pull off a political stunt saying that “the so-called ‘right to be forgotten’ doesn’t seem to bring anything more than the rights currently in place, and is reformulated for political reasons.”

Beyond the “right to be forgotten” lies a bigger issue: the growing divide between countries defending stricter privacy laws – like France and Germany – and those who want less restrictive laws. This second group is led by the U.S. of course, but also by Ireland and the UK – where most American companies have their European headquarters.

Members of the G29, an organization that brings together different European privacy authorities, have so far shown a united front, but the issue of the “right to be forgotten” and the possibility of redistributing sanctioning power among different countries aren’t getting the same consensus.

The French Children’s ombudswoman wants more. Her report recommends the creation of a “right to de-indexing,” which would make it possible to ask search engines to “de-index the information” that was the object of the request for the “right to be forgotten.” Such a measure would be “an essential corollary to the effective implementation of the ‘right to be forgotten’ digitally.”

But it will also surely be met with a strong opposition from search engines that refuse to manually remove content from their database unless forced to be authorities.

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