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Do We Have the Right to Be Forgotten?

The Boston Marathon Bombing unfolded like the latest Batman movies. Real life was eerily similar to the plot of those movies.  It wasn’t just the explosions or the long manhunt or the lock-down of an entire city. Watching people online accuse others of being part of the bombings gave credibility to the Joker’s claim that “people are only as good as the world allows them to be.”

The most prominent example was the story of Sunil Tripathi. Tripathi was a student at Brown University until he disappeared last March. After the bomb attacks devastated Massachusetts, websites such as began “looking” for the culprits. Reddit users pointed fingers at Tripathi, but as of late April, police believe that Tripathi’s body has been in a river for some time.

Reddit has since apologized to Tripathi’s family, but other individuals had been falsely accused as well.  Although the terror of the bombing has since faded, the underlying issues have existed for awhile and will continue to exist into the future. Those falsely accused of the Boston Bombing could bring a libel or slander lawsuit if they suffered any harm, but the larger problem of people being involved in legal problems and then having that information persist forever on the internet is not so easily addressed.

computer delete buttonFor example, a person could be arrested for possession of marijuana, but then have the charge dismissed. Although the public record can be expunged, this doesn’t apply to the internet. Employers, landlords, and the public in general could see “facts” which are legally non-existent. Libel laws cannot cover these types of cases because the information is often true, and truth is the best defense to libel. The information, however, will often prevent their subjects from getting a job or getting a room to live in. This problem is most common in criminal law, but the internet could have a chilling effect across multiple fields of law.

These privacy concerns are difficult to address since there are number of other interests that must balanced against it. First, the legal system has to be transparent. If lawsuits were not in public records, corruption would be a larger problem than it is right now. Second, free speech and free press are essential rights which cannot be sacrificed. Third, with regards to employers and landlords especially, they have the right to operate their business as they please, and a successful business involves researching and choosing good employees or tenants.

How, then, should we address these privacy concerns? Some people might not see an issue at all. Actions have consequences, and adults have to live with the consequences of those actions.  As an internet writer, I have to accept that my opinions won’t always be liked or accepted, and my writing might result in certain opportunities being closed to me in the future. The fact that plaintiffs might have to think before filing a lawsuit, or that defendants might want to consult an attorney before taking an action, is something that the law should consider promoting. People who support transparency over privacy would say that the internet might turn everyone into a public figure, but the status quo is hardly a nightmarish dystopia.

The opposite approach is taking form in Europe. Most European countries don’t have the same robust right to free speech that the United States has, so the “right to be forgotten” has gained far more traction across the Atlantic. This right includes the consumer’s right not to have information sold to the highest bidding advertiser (Facebook is notorious for this). The most extreme application of this right would be the ability to request that some writing, picture or video be permanently removed from a site.

Although censorship is not an exercise that the United States can take part in, requiring major news organizations, social networks, and search engines to update previous stories with the most relevant and up to date information could serve our needs for privacy while maintaining transparency. Deleting information is dangerous, as indicated by the fact that editing photos was a favored tactic of Joseph Stalin to rid himself of political opponents. Combating bad information with up to date information, however, seems like a method more in keeping with American tradition.


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