Sunday, April 17, 2016

Scrub: How the EU's "Right to be Forgotten" Policy Highlights the Internet's Built-in Shortcomings

by Nomad

The Internet is a "gift from God," said Pope Francis and yet that it comes with some dangerous limitations. For good reasons and bad, that divine offerring is under threat.

The News Written on the Wind

Most of us didn't think too much when the Internet ground print media into the  dust.
It was a breakthrough.
An astonishing step forward. If the former system of print media disappeared, then that's what progress looks like. The hard copy was dead, silently murdered by the website.

It was certainly more convenient and in many ways, it led to a revolution when it came to access to news and information. There's no question that it allowed news addicts their daily (hourly) hits. When it came to breaking news, the Internet outstripped CNN, a network that once broke the speed barrier for the live broadcast and the on-the-scene interviews. 

As the Internet became the predominant means for the average citizen to get the news, few considered the very real difference between them. I am not referring to the vast amounts of propaganda- that's nothing new. I am not speaking about faulty information online, especially given the rise of "fake news" and spoof sites. 

The problem with using the Internet as your only information source is its uniquely ephemeral (and indeed its rescindable) nature. Things appear and disappear seemingly at random.
Despite impressive efforts, the sheer volume of information makes any comprehensive attempt to archive the information fairly impossible.

When newspapers and magazines are printed, the information may be accurate or inaccurate but the information has become a part of the record. Subsequent to publication, it was in the hands of the public and, though it is can be updated, clarified, or retracted, it is, at the very least, available for review. It was able to be archived, cross-referenced, categorized for future reference. Or it could used to line the bird cage. 
The point was that it was out there and once out, it became part of the public domain. 

In the brave new world of online news, that fine distinction is growing increasingly important. Well-sourced articles can be disputed simply because the links once used as evidence and support have been scrubbed. 
In effect, once it is deleted from the Net, for many citizens of the new age, it ceased to exist. The truth about what happened can suddenly be changed or excised. 
Therefore the record of past is currently always in flux, according to the necessities and whims of the the powers that be.

We are living in an age in which vast amounts of information are at our fingertips and yet less and less of it can actually be trusted to be complete. 

Virtual Reality and the Turkish Disappearing Act

Let's look at one example at how foreign governments attempt to manipulate the historical record.

In Turkey, websites can be automatically closed down without warning simply for publishing online information the government disputes, or doesn't wish to be public knowledge. The Constitution of Turkey, in art. 28, is supposed to protect the freedom of the press against censorship. 
Yet, Constitutional guarantees are undermined by restrictive provisions in the Criminal Code, Criminal Procedure Code, and anti-terrorism laws, effectively leaving prosecutors and judges with ample discretion to repress ordinary journalistic activities
Various other protections related to the right to express non-violent opinion.are largely ignored by the present government.  
The courts have shown no apparent qualms about removing not merely the links from search engines, but the websites altogether.
According to Freedom House, government censorship of the Internet is relatively common and has increased steadily over recent years and almost 30,000 websites have been blocked.

In one case, the reason for court action was entirely because the information was damaging to the reputation of a close adviser to the Prime Minister. Photos of a government official kicking a protester at a funeral for dead miners while the protester was being held down by security forces, were widely published online.

According to one report, that official, Yusuf Yerkel, convinced a court to legally compel Turkey’s Internet service providers to censor 357 URLs for their users. His current tally includes 123 YouTube videos, 190 Turkish news articles, 22 international news articles, 10 popular forums, four cartoon blogs, four Dailymotion videos, and one tweet.
Purposefully vague laws (such as the crime of "insulting the prime minister" or "insulting Turkish culture") have become useful tools at limiting online access. 

Moreover, since last year, a new law gave the Prime Minister and his ministers the right to shut down websites for reasons including "national security" without a court order.

In fairness, Turkey is by no means alone in this suppression of information. You can see the same thing all over the world. 
Some have accused the European Union of setting a bad example, eemingly with good intentions. 

Stigmatized or Forgotten?

Europe's controversial "Right to be Forgotten" policy has had its critics since it was first proposed. Google, for example.

According to the concept, (which has now become formal EU policy) every individual should be allowed to "determine the development of their life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past." 
By keeping damaging information online- conceivably for eternity- that could have devastating effects on the lives of the people involved. 
That's the principle and in a perfect world, it makes sense.

Once when I briefly lived in a small town in Florida, I was horrified to read the so-called "Police Blotter." It's a pretty common thing, especially in smaller communities. I suppose it's aimed at giving citizens a report on the local crime scene and ensuring that the local law enforcement is doing more than eating doughnuts.

At any rate, I remember that one of the items in the small town press bothered me. It described how an elderly man had walked into a supermarket, presumably where he was a regular customer, and absently pocketed - I think it was- a tin of pipe tobacco. He was arrested for shoplifting and his name and address were published beside meth dealers, wife beaters and child molesters. 
The price of the purloined tobacco? 
Less than $2.

I wasn't quite sure how this kind of information benefited the public. Why did I need to know this? What did  the effect that this news item have on this man, and on his family? What were the extenuating circumstances? (Alzheimers, perhaps?)
For me, it simply reflected the small town attitude that drive so many people to the city.

So, I can understand the principles that motivated the European authorities. 

Scrubbing, Deleting and Forgetting

However, the right to be forgotten in practice is not without its significant problems. Search engines were, according to the law, obliged to remove listings upon request.   Not every application is rejected.

This policy only applies to search engines in EU member nations. It does not include the US where, at least for the moment, the First Amendment applies. So, getting around the EU policy is child's play. 
Since the ruling in 2014, Google has received 386,038 requests for removal, according to its transparency website. It has accepted about 42 percent of them.
Not long ago, the Guardian uncovered more information about who requested link removal and for what reason.
There were 218,320 link removal requests (covering a total of 1,030,182 URLs) between 29 May 2014 and 23 March 2015. Of those requests, 46% (101,461) were granted, with 99,569 involving “private or personal information.”

The remaining 1,892 successful removal requests, which represent less than 1% of the total made, related to four other distinct groups, identified by Google as “serious crime” (728 successful removal requests), “public figure” (454 removed), “political” (534 removed) and “child protection” (176 removed).
The Daily Mail examined the policy too and found that it has resulted in the link deletion of articles “from drug abuse to incest, murder and spying.”
And there was more. The Daily Mail also alleged that..
criminals are using family members mentioned in articles to submit the removal requests in order to get around terms that state those who have been convicted of serious crimes “do not have the right to be forgotten.”
Even without these claims, many Internet freedom activists feel that EU policy actually undermines the Internet's greatest gift.
The Economist remarks:
The internet is, in effect, a library of unimaginable size—full, as all libraries are, of news, gossip, archive material and other stuff which may to varying degrees be irrelevant, wrong or mad. It has made the best and worst of such information more freely available than ever before.
The library comparison is valid. An individual- as far as I am aware- cannot walk into a public library and demand that books be taken off the shelf on the basis of  his or her right to be forgotten. 
Hard copy can be manipulated in other ways, of course. However, in many ways, it is just too easy to conceal the facts if one relies solely on the Net. And you won't even notice it.


Once censorship begins, even with the best intentions, nobody can predict where it will end. Does a human-rights-abusing dictator deserve to have the right to be forgotten?
A corrupt politician running for re-election would very likely not wish to have allegations raked up, but does he or she too have the right to the same privacy as any other individual?
Search engines should be like library catalogues—comprehensive and neutral, and without fear or favour of what the contents may reveal, or how they may be used. It should be up to individuals, not governments, to distinguish what is right or wrong, useful or immaterial. People should be wary of ceding the power to make that judgment, even to a court that thinks hard about it and backs the underdog.
If that weren't distressing enough. one report from last August suggested that Google is under pressure in the UK to delete the links to sites which mention the removal of the links. Reporting on the removal of the links is now verboten as well.
Google has reportedly refused to comply. 

Even in the US, which supposedly values the right to a free press and less restrictive policy toward information, things are not quite what they seem.  
The Sacramento Bee has reported that the University of California's expensive attempt to clean up its reputation by scrubbing online sites has backfired miserably. 
And it stings like a faceful of pepper spray.  

How to clean up your online reputation

Messy party photos, offensive tweets, pepper spraying student protesters ... sometimes, you just want a do-over when it comes to your online presence. And for a hefty price tag, you can.