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The Right to be Forgotten

           While there are a multitude of interesting archival trends or issues that arise and are relevant today, a particularly interesting one concerns ‘The Right to Be Forgotten’ (RTBF). Especially in this current political climate, this ‘right’ is crucial to discuss, not only in its connection with the broader public, but how it affects archives more specifically. We initially chose this topic because of its current cultural relevancy, the implications of these decisions on the information fields, and the global tension regarding censorship and human rights to both privacy and freedom of speech. In the following paragraphs, we will provide an overview of what RTBF means, its history as a concept, its reception (both positive and negative), some relevant case studies, and how it impacts the archival profession.

            A 2016 IFLA statement identifies the RTBF as “an individual’s ability to request that a search engine remove links to information about himself or herself from search results” (IFLA). Put more simply, the RTBF is a tool used for protecting a citizen’s privacy by delisting certain webpages when the individual’s name is searched. This could include web pages that are judged to be inaccurate, irrelevant, delayed, or incomplete or web pages that violate an individual’s honor or reputation (Overview of the Privacy Act of 1974). Obviously, this raises issues because of its similarity to censorship. However, it is also heralded as a way to allow people to detach from their pasts, reinvent themselves, and protect their information.

            In 1995 the European Union created a data protection standard, called the Data Protection Directive, which dealt mostly with data processing. In this state, it did not legitimately affect the archival field. Then, in 2012, the debate for RTBF as it is known today began with a complaint from a private Spanish citizen. In this case, the citizen wished to have two 1998 articles delisted on Google because they mentioned his previous social security debts that were no longer accurate. The court ruled in the citizen’s favor, and the statements made within this case were the predecessor to RTBF-related laws (Vavra, 102). Following in 2014, the EU began to implement and uphold this right to internet privacy. In order to enforce this right, any private citizen in the EU who wishes to delist a webpage simply has to fill out a form in which they must supply reasons for delisting, and send it in to be considered. Not only are the inquiries evaluated on a case-by-case basis, as stated by Google, but also takes public interest into account (Fleischer).

            The conversations around issues of personal privacy have become more vibrating as our world grows increasingly digital and access to information, both new and old, continues to grow. The consensus largely is negative from those in the library and archive fields, stating that the power being given to individuals is frighteningly similar to censorship. Jannah McCarville points out the difference between ‘confidential information’ and ‘sensitive personal information’ (McCarville, 149). The RTBF deals specifically with sensitive personal information. McCarville states that, “while there is certainly a need to protect an individual’s privacy, it should not be protected at the cost of wider historical understanding” (McCarville, 152). This brings up the issue of potentially withholding thousands of valuable records out of fear for offending a handful of citizens. While the basic idea of protecting one’s own privacy is understandable, the power to delist can also lead to potentially disastrous outcomes. For example, if the power to delist and make information inaccessible, and therefore effectively erased, is controlled by an authoritarian government, then there is very little stopping the extreme whitewashing of a country already biased history.

            Because of the underlying premise of RTBF, it is difficult to have formal case studies about delisted information; how do we know what is forgotten, if we cannot remember it? Nonetheless, it is possible to gain an idea of its influence by looking at the history of censorship and erasure. Through the observation of past events when governments and individuals had control over informational and historical documents, we are able to see just how detrimental this power can be. Historically, information censorship and erasure was a widely used war tactic evident in multiple time periods, such as the destruction of whole civilization histories during Roman conquests, General Sherman’s destruction of various cities in Georgia during the Civil War, and the Nazi regime’s mass art theft of World War II. A further example of censorship and erasure outside of military strategy would be that of the Salem Witch Trials; virtually all documentation of the executions have been destroyed so that today there is no knowledge on where they actually occurred (Foote, 385). While all these examples may seem dramatic, the power over informational records should not be taken lightly as the consequences of wrongful censorship have the potential to be severe, especially in archives.

            Before explaining how RTBF affects the archival profession, it is helpful to first highlight the purpose of archivists and archives. In many sources, it is stated that the primary goals of archives are to process records through arrangement and description to be preserved in order to be accessed for use by present and future users (Holbert; Miller). In our opinion, the crucial aspect within these archival goals is the ability to access the information, which contains various important subtopics or points of discussion such as the balance between access and privacy, restrictions imposed through donor agreements, and the ethics (or lack thereof) of censorship. Evidently, it is these themes that relate archives to RTBF. While these concepts have been analyzed for years throughout the archival profession, RTBF has brought it more to the public sphere, widening the perspectives on how information should be approached, and in fact, there are two differing opinions on the topic that should be highlighted.

First is the view of RTBF by the historian, which is closely related to that of the archivist, and is presented by Antoon De Baets’ article. In this, he states that there is a slippery slope between the right to be forgotten and the right to forget, both of which lead to negative effects despite having opposing meanings (De Baets, 58). To us, it seems the right to forget allows for certain information to be unremembered, but it still exists in the ‘record’; the right to be forgotten, however, enables the ability to completely destroy pieces of information, and therefore alter the ‘record’. This is obviously unacceptable, but, at the same time, the distinct right to information must be balanced with the right to be forgotten, or more justifiably, the right to privacy. As De Baets states, this could be done by making distinctions in what constitutes this right to be forgotten: Is it the degree of popularity of public figures? Is it the amount of time passed? And how can these factors be consistently determined and upheld? (De Baets, 58-64). 

Another point of view towards RTBF is evident through Google’s own response to the EU law and their explanation behind it. While Google decided to uphold the court decision to delist information that is no longer adequate, relevant, or of interest to the public within EU countries, they did not completely delist information from the world. Instead, anyone searching outside of the EU would have access to the EU delisted material. This, then, was a compromise between the right to be forgotten as ruled by the EU courts and the more universal right to access information. Though this is not a perfect solution, it shows that there should be a balance between access and privacy (Fleischer). Finally, keeping in mind both of these views, it must be remembered that archives are primary sources for the history taught in schools, and therefore if the archive is amended by ‘forgetting’ or hiding certain pieces of information, there will be a worldwide impact that would not only modifies the past and affects the present, but will also implicate the future.

            Despite the fact that there are not many current sources discussing RTBF in a strictly archival sense, this concept is of extreme importance to the field and continues to incite passionate discussion. This is because moderating, limiting, and eliminating public access to information has both practical and ethical implications. Additionally, it is very easy to sympathize with both arguments for and against RTBF.  In fact, our own initial opinions changed when we realized the gravity of what TRBF means for archives: is our individual right to privacy and control of our information more valuable than the public good and overall archival missions?  Hopefully, this discussion of ‘The Right to Be Forgotten’ helps other prospective or current archivists in realizing why they need to be concerned with this concept, and the specific, detrimental effects it could have on the future of the archival field. If RTBF manages to take hold in the world, we might be facing an Orwellian future where the facts of history can be destroyed or altered to fit the current political narrative and individual motive, subsequently destroying the archival mission; or does it bring us to a more truthful and relevant representation.

Bibliography

Chadwick, Paul. “Should we Forget about the ‘Right to be Forgotten’?” The Guardian. 2018. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/05/right-to-be-forgotten-google-europe-ecj-data-spain. Accessed 20th October 2018.

De Baets, Antoon. “A Historian’s View on the Right to be Forgotten.” International Review of Law, Computers & Technology, vol. 30, nos. 1-2, 2016, pp. 57-66.

Fleischer, Peter. “Adapting our Approach to the European Right to be Forgotten.” Google Blog. 2016. www.blog.google/around-the-globe/google-europe/adapting-our-approach-to-european-rig/ . Accessed 23rd October 2018.

Freeman, Mack. “Google Embraces Version of Right to Be Forgotten.” Intellectual Freedom Blog, 18 Mar. 2016, www.oif.ala.org/oif/?p=6258 . Accessed 20th October 2018.

Foote, Kenneth E. “To Remember and Forget: Archives, Memory, and Culture.” The American Archivist, vol. 53, no. 3, 1990, pp. 378-392.

Holbert, Sue E. Basic Manual Series: Archives & Manuscripts: Reference & Access. The Societyof American Archivists, 1977.

IFLA -- IFLA Statement on the Right to Be Forgotten (2016). www.ifla.org/publications/node/10320 . Accessed 2 Oct. 2018.

Janes, Joseph. “Forget Me Not: Is the Appeal of the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ More about Anonymity or Control?” American Libraries, no. 6, 2016, p. 30.

McCarville, Jannah. “Balancing Access and Privacy in Archives: New Challenges in the Face of Canadian Privacy Legislation.” Feliciter, vol. 50, no. 4, Aug. 2004, pp. 149–53.

Miller, Laura A. Archives: principles and practices. Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc., 2010. “Overview of the Privacy Act of 1974.” The United States Department of Justice. 2015. www.justice.gov/opcl/introduction. Accessed 20th October 2018.

Vavra, Ashley N. “The Right to Be Forgotten: An Archival Perspective.” The American Archivist, vol. 81, no. 1, 2018, pp. 100-111.