The right to be forgotten

By Robin Vroom

 University of Leiden 
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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.  

New Shipping Routes and its Causal Processes

By Robin Vroom


On 11 September 2015, the Arctic sea ice reached its fourth lowest minimum in satellite records. This follows the long-term downward trend in Arctic ice coverage, which causes the Northern Sea Route (NSR) to currently be ice-free. The forecast of possible ice-free summers in a matter of decades has launched –among other consequences- the use of the lucrative NSR for high volume commercial traffic (see Figure 1).

Consequently, the NSR will increase the economic and political importance of the Arctic, which has prompted many nations to reassess their commitments and strategic interests towards the region. China, for instance, has already shown political interest in the Arctic by signing a free-trade agreement with Iceland in April 2013. Most recently –together with Japan and South Korea– China gained an observer status in the Arctic Council, which is the leading institutional forum for cooperation in the region.

These consequences suggest the presence of a causal chain. Within the chain, there are self-reinforcing mechanisms. Rising global temperatures – initiated by a cumulative cause of increased emission levels - have caused the Arctic sea to warm, resulting in reduced ice cover. Furthermore, this decreasing sea ice triggers a positive feedback process as sea ice has a much higher albedo compared to the surrounding ocean. That is, sea ice reflects 50 to 70 percent of the incoming solar energy –keeping the surface cooler- whereas the surrounding ocean only reflects about six percent and absorbs the rest. Ergo, the absorbed heat causes more ice to melt.

Although one can identify a causal chain of events around the Arctic, this does not mean that the story has ended. There is high level of uncertainty in terms of what an increase in commercial shipping in the Arctic could lead to. Investigating these paths and outcomes is out of the scope of this web post, but a logical avenue for more research.

Conscription: a modern case of slavery?

By Robin Vroom

Although slavery has been outlawed in all countries, there are modern forms of slavery that still exist to this day. The means through which modern forms of slavery operate differ greatly and do not only come in the obvious form in which one person takes ownership of another. Some forms of modern slavery are: debt bondage, serfdom, forced labour, and human trafficking. Yet one prevalent practise is often disregarded, namely military conscription. With this blog post I address a controversial topic – does conscription as an institution qualify to be labelled as a form of slavery?

The authors of the 1930 Forced Labour Convention – which is ratified by 177 countries - fully realised that military conscription fulfils the characteristics of forced labour. As it defines forced labour as “all work or service, which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily,” but exempted “any work or service exacted in virtue of compulsory military service.”

Now, whether one supports military conscription or not, one cannot argue against its substantial persistence in our current world. More than half of the world’s countries currently employ military conscription in one form or another (see figure 1). These forms of conscription are by definition involuntary servitude and restrict freedom of movement. Cooperation is institutionally enforced with punishments like imprisonment, exile, and in some cases even execution.

The main effect here probably is that the connotation attached to slavery evokes different emotions than conscription. Slavery is often regarded not solely as involuntary servitude, but as low-status involuntary servitude. Conscription on the other hand receives honour and provides a deep pool of manpower in the event of a national emergency. Notwithstanding, one ought to be careful when cost-efficiency compromises individual’s freedom.