How the Right to be Forgotten Complements Free Speech

Since the first establishment of colonies in the New World, the promise of a fresh start in this country has motivated people to take great risks and face powerful uncertainties as they fled poverty, religious persecution and political repression. This country, now America, promised freedom along with a new beginning; an opportunity to put the past behind and succeed on hard work and merit, not history. The very foundation of a “Right to Be Forgotten.” Our business culture is founded on the notion that you can try, fail, and try again until you succeed, which drives vital innovation. Each of us in one form or another believes in this truth.

Yet in the Internet Age, this right to be forgotten has taken second seat to another equally important American legal tradition: freedom of speech and expression. It is the European Union, not America, that has taken the initiative to protect the right to a fresh start – leaving the past behind – that was so important to our country’s founding. Some American free speech advocates fear that a right to be forgotten would lead to widespread censorship. The Right to be Forgotten and the right to freedom of expression are two complementary sides of the same coin.

Having autonomy over your online information and how it’s displayed in online media enables individual freedoms that align with American values and truths. Having a voice in remedying inaccurate, outdated and inappropriate information is renewing an individual’s right to freedom of speech and expression for their own identity.

Now that freedom is being threatened by the all-seeing Internet. You can no longer leave your history behind, it is available to anyone with access to a search engine. Because of the way search engines work, a single incident involving an individual, no matter how inconsequential, can be magnified in importance by the circumstances in which a person’s name is used and the prominence of the publication that used it. A very minor incident that happened years in the past involving a person in some way can be the very first thing that appears when Google is searched for the person’s name. There is little that one can do on one’s own to get this information removed or downgraded in importance.

The European Union’s Court of Justice addressed this issue in a 2014 case involving a Spanish Citizen. The Right to Be Forgotten meant that Google had to remove search engine results for an individual when those results were “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”. With this ruling, the European Court placed an individual’s privacy rights over a search engine’s right to return any factual result not otherwise protected, or the public’s right to know.

This makes good sense, but to some in the United States it seems to collide with Freedom of Speech as defined by the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Some have argued that Right to Be Forgotten as proposed by the Europeans is a step towards widespread censorship. Opposing opinions hold that the European interpretation may not be suited to the laws of this country, however, that obstacle does not excuse us from the finding a balance with the need to do something more suitable that can avoid or control the censorship issue.

The European perception of Free Speech vs. the rights of individuals is not the same as ours. We cannot expect that the European interpretation of the Right to Be Forgotten can be applied directly, but we must also retain our right to a fresh start that this country has always guaranteed, a truth that drives our economy. Search engines and online technology companies should not become the de facto arbiters of free speech.

The Right to be Forgotten movement is intending to be an augmentation of our base right, not limiting freedom of speech and expression through censorship. The American ideals of free speech and freedom of the press are sacred.  We do not view these as being in opposition with the Right to be Forgotten. Thus, we must urge our politicians to take up this issue and provide laws that protect our data and our privacy while supporting free speech. They must create a definition of the Right to be Forgotten that it preserves and augments the freedoms of the individual, while continuing to support our Constitutional Rights.

Join millions of Americans in urging Congress to provide for the Right to Be Forgotten. Sign the petition that will go to your Representatives and add your name to the list of concerned citizens who want action.