Escaping Your Online Mistakes: Should There Be a Law?

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Your Online Mistakes: Should There Be a Law to Protect You?

And these are just the edge cases. As being discussed in Europe today, the "right to be forgotten" could extend to any information about a person, whether they originally published it or not. Should a politician be able to tell a blog not to report truthful information that he deems unsavory or inconvenient? Should a popular athlete be able to tell the paparazzi not to reveal an embarrassing (but real) affair? Such an approach would run headlong into the fundamental free speech principles enshrined in our Constitution and law.

Instead of trying to implement a broad "right to be forgotten" that would trample the rights of other users, we would be better off working to create comprehensive privacy protections for users based on long-recognized principles such as transparency, data minimization, and individual access to data. If users better understand and have meaningful control over how their information is collected and shared in the first place, there would be certainly be less of a need to try to retroactively remove personal information after the fact. A narrowly-scoped "right to be forgotten" could even be part of such a framework, if clearly limited to a profile or account that a person had herself created and posted online (though, as noted above, there are messy complications even with that).

On the other hand, simply giving people the power to remove any unwanted information about them online would violate our fundamental values of freedom of speech and the press. People in this country want and deserve stronger privacy protections, but an all-encompassing "right to be forgotten," while alluring, would be unworkable, and unconstitutional to boot.

Leslie Harris is President and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology.

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