Thu, Jun 20, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Will safeguarding Internet privacy delete 21st-century history?

Archivists, genealogists, history professors and others who rely on records say that an EU proposal that would ensure Web users’ ‘right to be forgotten’ will be tantamount to erasing history because online documents are the ‘first draft’ of 21st-century history

By Eric Pfanner  /  NY Times News Service, SERRAVAL, France

EU lawmakers want to establish two separate, but related, digital privacy rules. One would guarantee Internet users the right to delete pictures, writings and other data on social networks and other online forums. In theory, this is already permitted, but regulators say removal can be cumbersome and deleted material often lingers in search engines and elsewhere.

Under the proposal, search engines would have to remove the material immediately. Internet companies balk at that. They say that they generally favor giving people control over material they have posted themselves, but oppose letting Internet users demand that search engines and other sites remove information about them that has been posted by others, perhaps including official documents.

The principle of a right to be forgotten is being tested under existing laws in Spain, where the Spanish government has ordered Google to remove unflattering references to dozens of individuals who filed complaints with the Spanish Data Protection Agency. Google has refused, insisting that only publishers or courts, not individuals or search engines, should have the power to remove information, assuming that it was legally published.

A test case, involving a Spaniard named Mario Costeja, who is seeking the removal of links to a newspaper notice from 1998 that his home was being auctioned after he failed to pay social security taxes, has gone to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. An advocate general, or legal expert to the court, is expected to issue an opinion late this month.

“Search engines should not be subject to censorship of legitimate content for the sake of privacy, or for any other reason,” William Echikson, Google’s head of free expression for Europe, wrote in a blog post on the case, adding that the newspaper announcement of the auction had been required under Spanish law.

Advocates of a right to be forgotten say different standards are needed in cyberspace because information like this is so much more readily available online than on paper, with the auto-complete functions of search engines sometimes providing negative associations even as users type in a name.

Jan-Philipp Albrecht, a German member of the European Parliament, said he was working on a compromise that would protect archivists’ use of data in the public interest, while giving individuals more control.

“I completely understand that these people are concerned about how to use archive data for historical purposes, but this campaign is a little bit exaggerated and misleading,” he said of the petition.

The legislation remains subject to horse-trading among the parliament and the commission, the EU’s executive arm, as well as national governments. Lawmakers say they hope to finish the process next year; the rules would go into effect two years later.

Legois, who is a municipal archivist in Sevran, a suburb of Paris, said he sympathized with concerns over the use of personal information by the likes of Google and Facebook, but added that there were solutions other than the deletion of data. For certain kinds of records, public access could be restricted, with archivists acting as guardians, he said.

Legois said the archivists are standing up for the little guy, citing a quote from Walter Benjamin, a German philosopher who killed himself in Spain in 1940 as he was fleeing the Gestapo:

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