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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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