The right to be forgotten

By Robin Vroom

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   Figure 1. Simplified reactive sequence chains of    the events    leading up to the “right to be forgotten” (sequence 1) and the external processes that took place at the same time (sequence 2).  

Figure 1. Simplified reactive sequence chains of the events leading up to the “right to be forgotten” (sequence 1) and the external processes that took place at the same time (sequence 2).  

In May 2014 the controversial “right to be forgotten,” came into effect after the European Court of Justice ruled that EU citizens can submit a request for the removal of any web-content that misrepresents them in either an inadequate, no longer relevant or otherwise harmful way. The content itself will not be deleted but search engines will not list the content in their search results. This has spurred controversy over how to balance freedom of speech and public interest with rights to privacy, leaving difficult judgement calls regarding privacy issues in the hands of private companies. For the purpose of this blog post I will look beyond this controversy and rather focus on its origin, specifically on the reactive sequence in which issues of privacy and data protection in Europe have become more salient after Edward Snowden blew the whistle on details of the US global data surveillance programs. I argue that this sequence has greatly influenced the “right to be forgotten.”   

Reactive sequences – according to Mahoney (2000) – are chains of reactions and counter reactions that are temporally ordered and causally connected and display a movement towards reversing previous patterns. The events are both a reaction to antecedent events as a cause of subsequent events.

Edwards Snowden’s revelations were a reaction to a society of mass surveillance. Though the information released was primarily related to government surveillance, its ramifications were far wider. While opening the eyes of people around the world the behaviour and actions of people, businesses, governments and courts have all undergone changes, and those changes have an impact. Snowden stirred debate on how to safeguard privacy in the current information age, causing intensified public concerns over intrusive collection, usage and storage of data. 

This represents a reactive sequence and the timing of the separate events illustrates the continuation of the process, I illustrated this in the figure below. If Snowden’s revelations, for instance, had been made earlier or later, this could have led to different European parliament and court decisions.