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We Need a Right To Be Forgotten
ONC Editorial

Oct 03, 2023

Privacy is evolving, and the right to be forgotten needs to keep pace with that evolution. (The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the individual author, Vedant Vamshidhar, whose information can be found below.)

In the age of big data, maintaining individual privacy has become more important than ever. Nearly everything aspect of our lives is traceable online, whether the activity occurred on the internet or not. As a result, aspects of our lives many of us wish to keep private are available for public or corporate viewing.

In 2014, the European Union passed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which had a section on personal privacy rights, including the right to be forgotten. Broadly, it allows individuals to request search engines like Google to delist specific results for searches relating to the individual’s name.

Search engines aren’t immediately obligated to delete the data because they have to consider a number of factors. For example, if there is a significant public interest in keeping that information visible, Google will not delist it. However, if the information meets certain criteria such as being false, irrelevant or otherwise excessive, companies must remove it. 

The United States should follow the EU’s lead in adopting the right to be forgotten. People have far less privacy than they did 20 years ago, especially considering that frequent Internet usage is almost required as part of our day to day lives. Someone who was cited for a minor legal violation like underage drinking over 10 years ago may still have a record of that online when potential employers search for them on Google.

Others who were arrested and then found not guilty could still experience repercussions because the information was divorced from the relevant context of their eventual verdict. Even if someone was convicted as a teenager, many courts allow those crimes to stay off of permanent records. Digital spaces should reflect that legal decision and give people a chance to start anew. The right to be forgotten, in many ways, allows our virtual personas to catch up with the facts of our lives.

It is difficult to simultaneously uphold personal privacy and freedom of speech, but this the right to be forgotten strikes an effective balance. Legitimate concerns about vital information being withheld from the public are addressed well by the public interest clause, and it is not possible for individuals to remove just any information that they don’t want public. There needs to be a demonstrated reason for the removal of the information since the default position taken on any issue is in favor of free speech. Therefore, only information that is irrelevant, inaccurate or outdated will be removed with few harms to the general public.

Vedant Vamshidhar is a rising senior from the University of Southern California studying Intelligence & Cyber Operations. He is interested in the intersection of cybersecurity and international relations, and currently works as a Governance intern for ONC. Outside of coursework, he is active in USC’s Model United Nations team and the Southern California International Review.

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