Erasing internet links

Process should be fair, transparent and independent

INDEPENDENT MEDIA by David Christopher

Author David Christopher• You don’t have to look far these days to discover new threats to the free and open Internet we all rely on. Recently, OpenMedia has helped fight off a costly new ‘Link Tax,’ mobilized supporters against a reckless spying law and ran high-impact bus ads against the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s Internet censorship plan.

Over the past year, however, a new threat has arisen from an unusual source. In May 2014, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that Mario Costeja González had the right to have links to a 1998 Spanish newspaper article about him removed from search engines. This type of right has become known as the “right to be forgotten.”

This ruling set a precedent that, in the EU, means any citizen can now request to have links to articles about them removed from search engines. This may sound like a fairly non-threatening development, but it’s one that could drastically change how people share, communicate and access information online.

Let’s look a little closer at why this European approach is so problematic.

Firstly, the “right to be forgotten’ in and of itself is not a bad thing. It simply amounts to the right to withdraw consent, which is at the core of most data protection regimes. For example, I have the right to withdraw my consent for Facebook to display my profile image. However, when it comes to removing links to information that is publicly available about me, things get a lot more complex. What if I were a politician or businessman seeking to cover up unsavoury stories about my past? Should I really be allowed to censor the Internet by forcing Google to remove any links to my previous nefarious activities?

Secondly, the European approach places all the onus on intermediaries like Google and Facebook to censor content by removing links. This is putting the cart before the horse; interfering in the technology that makes the web work is not the answer. Let’s say a website publishes an article falsely accusing you of being a thief. In such a case, the onus should be on the website to remove it, not on search engines that merely link to it.

Thirdly, the European model allows for no independent judicial involvement. Getting links censored is as simple as filling out a webform on Google’s website. Again, this means web companies getting involved in monitoring and interfering in the free flow of information online.

To get an idea of the potential dangers, we need look no further than Russia where the authoritarian government has just passed its own version of the “right to be forgotten.” Under Russia’s new law, links can be removed simply for linking to “unverified information.” The law even allows politicians and oligarchs to request the removal of vast swathes of negative information about their activities.

There should be a transparent, independent, judicial process that individuals can avail themselves of when they wish to have content about them removed from the Internet and the onus to remove such content should be placed on the host, not on intermediaries like Google or Facebook.

Do you think companies, politicians and others should be able censor web content without a judicial process? Let us know in the comments! And learn more about our growing international campaign to Save The Link at https://savethelink.org/?src=blg

David Christopher is Communications Manager with OpenMedia, a community-based organization that safeguards the possibilities of the open Internet. OpenMedia.org

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