Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

EU 'right to be forgotten' ruling potential rogue's charter

The recent ruling by the EU's highest court that citizens have a 'right to be forgotten' is, I believe, a blow not just against freedom of expression, but against public access to information.

It's not particularly the ruling as such – there does have to be a balance with the right to privacy – but it is the catch-all, unjustifiable and uncertain nature of the judgment that rankles.

Never mind the restriction on public access to information, the ruling's reference to the right to restrict material that is "irrelevant, outdated, or otherwise inappropriate" is vague and will, I predict, keep armies of lawyers in jobs for years.

I fear the law of unintended consequences will apply, as hordes of people with backgrounds to hide use it for a range of selfish reasons.

The Belfast Telegraph has already received one 'right to be forgotten' request, which I am currently evaluating.

The complainant has cited the EU v Google case and insists that, because of this adjudication, he has the right to have an article removed from the internet.

Strictly speaking, his application is erroneous because the EU ruling was only against Google and search engines, not media outlets. The court did not uphold the same plaintiff's attempt to force a Spanish newspaper to remove material from its online archive.

However, the complainant is unhappy about something that is published on our website and I am assessing the merits of his case.

I can't go into details of private correspondence at the moment, but assuming the claims he makes in his letter are true, and that's a big assumption at this stage, it is clear to me that the Belfast Telegraph should act on his complaint under the Editors' Code of Practice.

If something is wrong, it can and must be corrected. The only choice is the course of action required.

It may be a notice attached to the archive to set the record straight. On rare occasions, it may be that the article is removed in its entirety. In this case, investigation will resolve the matter and we shall see what, if anything, needs done.

The Google ruling is, of course, in danger of becoming a rogue's charter. Google says it has thousands of requests, with some of the first reported cases including a scandal-hit politician, a paedophile convicted of possessing images of child abuse and a doctor who wanted negative reviews removed.

Certainly in the past the Belfast Telegraph has come under pressure to remove archive material that a person believes is detrimental to them, even though it is completely true and based upon privileged reports of proceedings.

This includes a doctor who was struck off for malpractice and who was seeking to expunge all reports of his past from the internet.

Newspapers were pretty good at standing up for themselves (when the law permitted it), but now the campaigners have gotten around this by targeting the search engines, in particular Google.

Alas, as with many attempts to shackle the internet, this one is likely to fail.

The EU ruling only applies to searches in Europe. So if you search for Mr X in say the US or Australia, his shenanigans will still be viewable. Google has warned that, while complying with the EU court ruling, it may well flag on search lists that the search has been restricted or censored under EU law.

Moreover, anyone with a modicum of IT knowledge can use simple tools to disguise their IP address and search the internet from within Europe.

Google – which did miss a trick by failing to understand EU citizens's genuine concerns on privacy – has now drawn up an online form for people to submit details of 'right to be forgotten' complaints to a high-powered adjudication committee.

Doubtless there will be legal action, particularly from wealthy plaintiffs who can afford to challenge decisions. This one is set to run and run.

BTreaderseditor@gmail.com @BelTelReadersEd

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