Digital Health & Wellbeing

The right to be forgotten

Updated: November 2023

Although many think that our actions and reactions online are anonymous, using a device that locates us via our IP address means that we aren’t anonymous at all.

The rising awareness of Western cancel culture (that includes the silencing of both historical and contemporary citizens) has made many (but not everyone) more aware of their online actions and reactions.  

Additionally, those generations who have grown up in the digital era may have posted (or their parents/guardians may have posted) things that no longer represent them. 

In previous eras, the things we did, said and fervently believed disappeared in the mists of time and memory. Not so much anymore. Douglas Murray’s ‘The Madness of Crowds’ and Jon Ronson’s ‘So You’ve Been Publically Shamed‘ showcase examples of how easily it is for both celebrities and everyday citizens to be trolled, shamed and embarrassed for current and historical posts that never go away.

AI algorithms have added another level of complexity to the perceived privacy of our online actions. Social media company business models are set up to maximise screentime-based advertising revenue. As the saying goes, “If you do not pay for the product, you are the product”. So, we are drawn into habits of spending longer periods online than we otherwise think we ought to, and get drawn into conversations we probably shouldn’t. 

So, the right to be forgotten has become a rather important topic to explore – and involves the clash between The Right to Privacy, The Right to Freedom of Expression, Freedom of the Press and Censorship of Big Tech. 

Not everyone in the press is delighted about the EU’s 2014 ruling on a Spanish case that allows an individual the ability to request that Google remove links to information about them e.g. as pointed out by James Ball of The Guardian some articles no longer appear in the UK version of Google’s search engine.

The EU case has set a precedent (as explained by Charles Arthur, also of The Guardian), that applies specifically to Google in Europe but not to European news websites. This is because journalists and the media are protected under the European data protection law as part of media outlets. Google has opted to be classified as a Data Controller, so falls under the EU GDPR laws that protect the integrity of information about people. 

So, do individuals have a ‘right to be forgotten’? Yes and no. Applications can be made to Google to request that links to articles or information about them be removed from their EU search engines. This can mean that those who may have received a criminal record in their youth but have subsequently cleaned up their act and searched for a job may have a better chance if Google Europe ‘forgets’ them. It can also mean that celebrities are able to remove reputation-damaging information from any search about them. However alternative search engines, such as Duckduckgo, or alternative country versions of Google will still include links to the information in their search results.

Mary Aiken (a Forensic CyberPsychologist) in her book The Cyber Effect’ talks about leaving digital traces wherever we go on the internet. Probably the best way to avoid any negative publicity is to become more conscious of what you post online. It is also a really great reason to spend more time with people in person and a little less time online.