Lest we forget our rights in the Internet age

 

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My human nature abhors a snoop, unless he would be me. I am as compelled to conceal most details of my admittedly humdrum life as I am to blow the lid off someone else’s potentially dangerous cache of secrets. 

This is why, when it comes to privacy in the age of the Internet, I do not worry overmuch about irreconcilable urges. Everyone, it seems, has them.

Earlier this month, the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled that a Spanish guy does, indeed, possess the “right to be forgotten” in cyberspace, just as he had argued, setting a precedent that could spell profound implications for privacy advocates and free-speech supporters, alike. 

According to an online news item in the Guardian, “In what could be a landmark case for internet privacy, a European court has ruled that Google must amend some of its search results. . .The test case. . .was brought by a Spanish man, Mario Costeja González, after he failed to secure the deletion of an auction notice of his repossessed home dating from 1998 on the website of a mass circulation newspaper in Catalonia. . .

(In) the advisory judgement. . .individuals have a right to control their private data, especially if they are not public figures.”

The Guardian piece goes on to report that “More and more individuals are claiming they have a ‘right to be forgotten’, particularly when the internet pulls up personal information which may appear one-sided or unfair.”

For its part, Google characterized the ruling as “disappointing” and indicated it would take its time “analysing the implications”.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was simply gobsmacked. 

“(This is) one of the most wide-sweeping internet censorship rulings that I’ve ever seen,” he told BBC Radio 5 last week. “If you really dig into it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. They’re asking Google. . .you can complain about something and just say it’s irrelevant, and Google has to make some kind of a determination about that. That’s a very hard and difficult thing for Google to do – particularly if it’s at risk of being held legally liable if it gets it wrong in some way.”

Moreover, he said, “Normally we would think whoever is publishing the information, they have the primary responsibility – Google just helps us to find the things that are online. . .I would expect that Google is going to resist these claims quite vigorously. I think they would be foolish not to because if they have to start coping with everybody who whines about a picture they posted last week, it’s going to be very difficult for Google.”

Still, if some authorities think it’s perfectly okay to require search engines like Google to scrub the past clean on demand, others seem determined to obtain access to the unfiltered mausoleums of information that represent the virtual lives of nearly three billion IT-savvy earthlings. 

The Government of Canada, for one, is doing its level best to shine daylight on two bills (C-13 and C-31) that would expand the snooping powers of police. According to a report in the Globe and Mail last week, these controversial pieces of legislation will “give police and other law-enforcement officials new powers to request and monitor the private data of Canadians, despite objections from privacy watchdogs.”

Where is, these watchdogs wonder, our ‘“right to be forgotten”?

In a letter, earlier this month, to Conservative MP Mike Wallace, chair of the Commons justice committee, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian stated, “The time for dressing up overreaching surveillance powers in the sheep-like clothing of sanctimony about the serious harms caused by child pornography and cyberbullying is long past.”

In her own statement last week, British Columbia’s privacy commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, advised the feds to “separate the provisions addressing cyberbullying from those that extend law enforcement powers,” arguing that “any proposed increase to those powers must be critically examined and vigorously debated.” 

She added: “It is up to government and law enforcement agencies to make the case to Canadians as to why increased police powers are necessary.”

Canada’s various privacy commissioners and the likes of Jimmy Wales may argue interminably about which is more dangerous to a healthy democracy: Too much of an individual’s personal information concentrated hands of a powerful few; or not enough accurate information about an individual’s actions available to the great, unwashed masses.

The good news is, perhaps only, that the debate is far from settled. 

 

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