Friday, December 1, 2023
News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students

An ad on a Vancouver bus reminds passengers of the importance of digital privacy.

To Forget or Not to Forget

Anything that goes on the internet stays on the internet

Anything that goes on the internet stays on the internet. And with a person’s greatest embarrassments so easy to find anywhere, anytime, it is no surprise that unlucky soul isn’t getting that respectable job or second date. Search engines aren’t very good at keeping secrets.

But if Canada’s privacy commissioner has his way, they might soon have to.

Commissioner Daniel Therrien already outlined his intention to enhance Canadians’ control over their online reputations earlier last year, but it wasn’t until October when he took the first step towards that goal, submitting a case to the federal court that may potentially pave the way for de-indexing.

De-indexing is industry jargon for when a search engine such as Google removes content from results containing an individual’s name. The material remains online, it just doesn’t follow them around like some digital scarlet letter.

The official announcement of Therrien’s test case details a complainant who would prefer to not have news articles he claims are “outdated, inaccurate and disclose sensitive information about his sexual orientation and a serious medical condition” come up when someone looks him up online.

European Union pioneers de-indexing

The European Union formally established the “right to be forgotten” in 2014 after a similar legal crusade by a Spanish national. Since then, Europeans have requested de-indexing of over 3 million URLs from Google alone, with the company complying 44 per cent of the time.

The mechanism is simple: a request is filed by the individual, after which the search operator weighs the harm caused to the individual against the public interest in preserving the results, then decides to de-index or not.

But any restriction on information is bound to be controversial, especially in a country like Canada, caught between European paternalism and the more laissez-faire approach to speech regulation of its southern neighbour.

Students using computers at the UBC library.

The debate is just beginning

Cindy Underhill works for Digital Tattoo, a project aimed at educating people about the gravity of their online reputation. “I worry about giving a corporation the power to make those decisions, to sort of play judge and jury over what’s harmful, what’s relevant, and to sort of mediate between the interests of the individual and the public’s right to know,” she told The Thunderbird.

But digital-media expert Taylor Owen of the University of British Columbia has warned against taking an absolutist approach to free speech and applying it to platforms lacking transparency:

“If Google can’t tell me how that algorithm functions and why they’re revealing what they’re revealing, then I think I should have more of a right to push back against the way my data is indexed.”

Executive director Pat Perkel of the Toronto-based National NewsMedia Council is weary of such a strong and unusual step as de-indexing, but acknowledges it can be justified in extreme cases such as criminal charges that are withdrawn or acquitted.

But ultimately, “Europe is still standing in spite of the right to be forgotten, and journalism is still standing in spite of it,” she adds. And so, “people are at least willing to acknowledge that such an option exists and perhaps could rarely be used.”