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

Thu, Jun 20, 2013 - Page 9

A s a European proposal to bolster digital privacy safeguards faces intense lobbying from Silicon Valley and other powerful groups in Brussels, an obscure, but committed, group has joined in the campaign to keep personal data flourishing online.

One of the EU’s measures would grant Internet users a “right to be forgotten,” letting them delete damaging references to themselves in search engines, or drunken party photographs posted on social networking sites. However, a group of French archivists — the people whose job it is to keep society’s records — is asking: What about our collective right to keep a record even of some things that others might prefer to forget?

The archivists and their counteroffensive might seem out of step, as concern grows about US surveillance of Internet traffic around the world. Yet the archivists say the right to be forgotten, as it has become known, could complicate the collection and digitization of mundane public documents — birth reports, death notices, real-estate transactions and the like — that form a first draft of history.

“Today, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter — this is the correspondence of the 21st century,” said Jean-Philippe Legois, president of the Association of French Archivists, which has about 1,700 members. “If we want to understand the society of today in the future, we have to keep certain traces.”

The group represents a wide swath of professionals who specialize in preserving and cataloging documents from institutions as diverse as town halls or museums. Still, supporters of the French campaign acknowledged the growing concern about digital privacy, after the disclosure of the extensive US intelligence project known as PRISM to mine data from Internet companies for security purposes.

To try to persuade EU lawmakers to drop or soften the proposed rules on digital privacy, the French archivists introduced a petition, circulated to their counterparts in other countries. The group says the petition has received almost 50,000 signatures, which it will present to the European Parliament.

The group also commissioned advertising posters underlining the threat it sees. One shows a metaphorical image of demonstrators marching through Paris, their faces hidden by digitally appended clown masks. It asks: “Without a name, does individual commitment still have the same meaning?”

The archivists know that their influence is limited as parliament is lobbied by myriad Internet companies, governments and other organizations, which have submitted about 4,000 amendments to the proposed law for the EU’s 27 member states. This month, several proposals were softened, including the plan to require companies to obtain “explicit” consent from users to collect and process their data, though the US surveillance revelations could renew the push for tougher rules.

The right to be forgotten is one of the most contentious items.

The European Commission has drawn support from consumer organizations and privacy advocates, but the archivists have received backing from other European professionals who rely on record-keeping, including genealogists and history professors.

Advocates of the right to be forgotten say it is unrealistic to expect Internet companies like Google and Facebook, which collect huge amounts of data on their users in order to direct relevant advertising to them, to put safeguards in place without stricter regulations.

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:

“It is more arduous to honor the history of the nameless than that of the renowned,” the philosopher wrote. “Historical reconstruction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.”