At the risk of misjudging readers, it is probably safe to say that every one of us has at least one acutely uncomfortable memory of something we did in the past, and which is so embarrassing that it is filed away in one of the many dark uncluttered corners of our mind, where, if we’re lucky, it will lie undisturbed for years, maybe even forever.
However painful or excruciating it might be, try to bring the memory of that event to mind now, in all of its glory.
Now consider how you would feel if you were told that the entire episode, in full colour, had actually been captured on video, and that video has been posted on the internet. You are also told that any internet search of your name will bring up this video on the first search page. If you were told that there is no legal way for you to have the video removed, because to do so represents censorship, and would diminish the right to free speech, how do you think you would feel about free speech?
Thankfully, (well, hopefully) this exercise is only an imaginary scenario, but for a great many people the indiscretions of their past are beginning to catch up with them through the internet.
There is a modern compulsion to record every event, no matter how inappropriate, for posterity. (I once saw a man fall overboard into the lake while he was cleaning his boat. His wife’s first thought was to reach for the video camera, his safety came second).
The laws relating to the right to free speech and censorship, and the underlying reasoning behind these laws were developed long before the internet age, and could not have anticipated the challenges posed by the incredible immediacy and proliferation of the web. The delicate balance between the conflicting concepts of free speech and privacy has shifted, and slowly the law is beginning to respond.
One specific area which is to be the subject of new rules by the European commission is the introduction of a new right for citizens, in certain circumstances, to have information or data about them on the internet deleted. This could be photographs, videos, a posted opinion or simply personal information. These new rules are being called “The Right to be forgotten”
When these rules come in to force citizens will have the right to ask web administrators to delete data about them on websites, and the administrators will have to comply with the request, unless there are legitimate grounds to retain the information. This request to delete could be related to material posted by the individuals personally, or posted by a third party.
To a great many people who are daily humiliated on the web this will come as a very welcome relief. Many others are opposed to the plan. Some are convinced that this is the start of internet censorship. There are some merits to that argument. If your desire is to delete a drunken opinionated rant, or images of a youthful indiscretion, that seems fair enough, and could hardly be described as censorship. If, on the other hand, the motivation is to suppress truthful, valid or uncomfortable criticism, then it starts to look like censorship.
Whether we like it or not, the internet has become an alternative public record, and it will undoubtedly serve as source material for the sociologists and historians of the future. Your personal embarrassing moment should not be part of that record. On the other hand introducing rules which allows the erasing or manipulation of material which is genuinely in the public interest should be of concern to us,