Americans deserve a 'right to be forgotten' 

Americans deserve a 'right to be forgotten' 
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"Who owns the rights to the virtual you? Raise your hand if you think you do." Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnTaylor Swift defends staying out of the 2016 election: 'I just knew I wasn't going to help' The 23 Republicans who opposed Trump-backed budget deal Senate passes sweeping budget deal, sending it to Trump MORE (R-Tenn.) asked that question at a recent privacy hearing on Capitol Hill. Naturally, everyone raised their hands — but they were all wrong. 

The reality is that Americans today have very little control over how they are represented online. Faceless algorithms make that decision about you — and if what shows up in your search results happens to be wrong or misleading, you’re the one who pays the price.

Big Tech companies may not like it, but there’s something we can do about this growing problem: We can urge Congress to give Americans a “right to be forgotten” in online search engines. This right has been enjoyed by hundreds of millions in the European Union since 2014, but it remains sorely lacking in America. 

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The right to be forgotten is founded on the common-sense principle that an individual’s right to privacy, in certain cases, outweighs the public’s need to know. People typically become aware of this issue when they search their own name, only to find inaccurate or overly personal search results that unfairly hinder them from seeking employment, customers or personal relationships.

Affording Americans a practical means to address this issue should not be considered an optional “cherry-on-top” but a core component of currently proposed federal privacy legislation. Many of the EU’s privacy regulations have been ineffective but, in this area, European policies are working well and can serve as a guidepost for American legislation. 

EU citizens have benefited from the ability to submit removal requests for certain personal search results using a simple process:

1) The individual fills out a request form that asks for their name and proof of identity, the URLs containing their personal information, and the reason for removal.

2) The search engine company reviews each submission against criteria that have been set forth in the law. Specifically, they consider whether the information in question can be classified as inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive.

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3) The company accepts or rejects each request. Since May 2014, Google has delisted roughly 45 percent of requested URLs.

4) If the individual disagrees with the initial decision, they can follow an appeal process through a government organization.

Naturally, an American “right to be forgotten” would need some common-sense restrictions to safeguard the public interest. Elected officials, heads of public companies or those who might pose a danger to the public, for example, should not be allowed to scrub their pasts from search results.

Similarly, the bar for removing content would need to be higher than simply not liking it. To protect free speech, removal requests would need to be limited to certain private, provably false or long-outdated items that appear in the search results for your name. Information would be delisted from the search engine but not removed from the internet.

Americans intuitively understand why this is so important to their lives and livelihoods. Studies have shown that 78 percent of us believe it is very important to look up others online before interacting or doing business. It’s not surprising, then, that people’s families, careers and romantic lives are ruined by misleading search results every day.

As the CEO of a technology company focused on helping people to manage personal information online, I see and hear about these impacts firsthand all the time. Business owners are targeted by angry ex-partners who post doctored versions of news articles or faked reviews; people are publicly humiliated or passed over for jobs because of stolen photos maliciously photoshopped onto pornographic content, or embarrassing decades-old news stories that remain at the top of search results.

Such instances demonstrate the frightening power of an internet where online narratives last forever and can be tied to your name indefinitely, whether true or not. These cases are addressable with online reputation management services, but not without a level of expense that would be prohibitive to many Americans.

Worse yet, no one is held responsible. Our archaic, decades-old communications laws haven’t kept up with this modern internet reality. Since 1996, Section 230 of the ironically named “Communications Decency Act” has protected web platforms from liability when they propagate inaccurate, misleading or outdated information. Attackers often hide behind online anonymity, and the legal standard for defamation is notoriously difficult to prove.

Unsurprisingly, Big Tech companies have fought against any loss of control that an American right-to-be-forgotten law might impose on them. “We’re not a truth engine,” one tech executive stated in 2018. “We can give you information, but we can’t tell you the truth of a thing.”

The problem, of course, is that search-engine users – which is to say, everyone – usually assume that the first page of their search equates to the truth. After all, the results are almost always right — or close enough to right that we can’t be bothered to fact-check them. As such, when we find something troubling about a job candidate or a local business, it’s usually easier just to move on, whether or not that’s fair to the people on the other end of those search results.

The right to be forgotten is a popular solution to this problem. Polls have shown that 88 percent of Americans support legislation to allow individuals to have information, videos or photographs about themselves deleted from search engines. How often do you find 9-in-10 people agreeing on any serious issue in today’s divided political climate?

It’s time to hold search engines accountable in America, making them part of the solution. Legislators should not forget to include a right to be forgotten in currently proposed legislation for data privacy and protection.

Rich Matta is chief executive officer of ReputationDefender, a global firm in the field of digital privacy and online reputation management and an advocate of right to be forgotten legislation in America.