Should US have 'right to be forgotten?'

Think Stock

The ability to disappear online is at the root of a European court decision that will require Google and other Internet companies to delete personal information about people on request.

The European court’s decision to side with a Spanish man who asked Google to take down links to newspaper articles about his home being auctioned off due to unpaid taxes reverberated loudly in the U.S., with tech companies immediately warning it would lead to censorship across the Atlantic.

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The ruling could open the door to forcing sites across the Web to take down information at users’ request — even when it is true.

A U.S. version of what Europeans call the “right to be forgotten” seems impossible in this country both because of the First Amendment, which gives broad protections on what can be printed online and in paper, and the quick and full-throated pushback from technology companies at the center of the new American economy.

When it comes to children, though, there has been some effort on both a state and national level to limit what type of information gets collected and shown to advertisers and the world at large.

Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), and Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) introduced a bill last year that would create an  “eraser button” for kids’ data on the Internet.

In addition to expanding other privacy protections to children 15 and under, the Do Not Track Kids Act would allow parents and kids to delete publicly available information “when technologically feasible.”

“I think that it’s important that parents have the right to be able to have information about their children erased,” Markey said on Wednesday. “I think that children have the right  grow up, and ... everyone realizes that someone who’s 12, 13, 14, 15 should have the right to things that they put up taken down.”

The bill has 40 co-sponsors in both chambers of Congress and follows a similar effort in the states.

California last year passed a law creating a similar “online eraser” for people under 18. Starting next year, the law will require websites to let children and teens delete messages, pictures, comments and other activity online.

Other states from New Jersey to Utah have considered following suit.

The ruling in Europe could cut both ways for those efforts. 

“Maybe it will provide an impetus [for states] to pass it,” said Justin Brookman, the head of the consumer privacy project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, “or maybe it will actually give incentive for companies to fight back.”

Those bills are limited to children, and there seems to be little push to expand it to adults.

“That’s his primary focus: ensuring that children are protected,” said Debra Johnson, a spokeswoman for Rush, about the bill in Congress. “As further legislation develops, we’ll see, but at this time we will focus on children.”

“All individuals should be protected, but children necessarily don’t have the forethought of adults to ensure that what they’re posting will be looked at 20 years from now,” she added.

To some extent, law in the U.S. already does allow people’s information to be erased at a certain point.

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, for instance, most unpaid debts and delinquencies are expunged from people’s credit reports after seven years. Juveniles arrested for minor crimes can have some of those records wiped clean once they turn adults.

Going as far as Europe would radically change the Internet, something unlikely in the country of its birth.

The EU decision “gives any individual the power to become a censor of the Web,” said Ed Black, the head of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, in a statement.

It could also create an uneven playing field for Americans and Europeans online, if Americans can see information that Europeans can’t.

“We understand the desire to control information online, but a more careful approach is needed to ensure this does not turn into the right to hide the truth from others — or the right to enforce ignorance on others,” added Black, whose trade group represents household names like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo.

“It has frightening, far-reaching implications for everything from researching information to free speech online," he said.

For tech companies, it also could mean lots of money and manpower that will have to be shifted to compliance.

“They can’t do it at scale. There’s no way,” said Brookman.

“They’d have to hire an insane amount of people,” he added. “I worry that they will say, ‘Okay, we got something; just take it down because we can’t deal with it, and if we leave something up we might get sued.’ ”