A Right to Forget – Online

There is lots of advice around, addressed to the young and innocent but probably applicable to the old and jaded as well, to be cautious about what one puts online about oneself, since it could be there for a long time and influence people whose interest you have not yet thought about — future employers and mates being two of the main classes.

The French are now pondering a legal ‘right to forget’ (un droit à l’oubli) — or at least a right of a person to get old information about him/herself taken down. The BBC has the story.

Is this: (a) a good idea, and (b) even remotely possible, even by force of law? What about Internet archives, and mirror sites, and viral messages?

I had thought that there was already such a legal rule in French law, though not perhaps enforceable against a host of a web site. Does that sound familiar to anyone else, or did I just make it up?

Should we have something similar here?


  1. John:

    Talk about Orwellian overtones!

    Who would have the right to have things dropped into the memory hole? Companies who don’t like reviews on their products and services?

    The BBC article stated:

    ‘Negative buzz sometimes originates from bloggers on specialist sites with a small, but influential following.

    In these instances, Didier Frochot from information management company Les Infostrateges approaches the people responsible and threatens them with legal action.

    “If they don’t instantly remove the litigious items, and there’s always a hardcore who refuse to budge, then we have to, shall we say, insist a little harder,” he said.’

    The BBC article further stated:

    “This right-to-forget would force online and mobile firms to dispose of e-mails and text messages after an agreed length of time or on the request of the individual concerned.”

    What about Clifford Olson, who murdered a total of eleven children or Paul Bernardo and his wife Karla Homolka? Would they have a right to have what is written about them taken down after they served their debt to society? Or if someone like them had emailed or wrote to their victim’s families – personally or by sending notes to the press – would the victims’ families have to take them down once they are released? What about when they are still serving time?

    Or are we speaking only of the well-heeled who don’t particularly like what has appeared about them on-line?

    The ability for the young and/or foolish to have embarrassing things taken down is one thing; how do you word such a law so that other legal persons can’t use it for their own purposes?

    The thought of opening such a Pandora’s Box…


  2. While such a right might need a tight constraint on the range of published items that are subject to an ‘order to forget’, there are probably some classes of item that many people would agree should be ‘forgotten’, e.g., proven defamation (away from the context of that proof), or even run-of-the-mill newspaper stories that have been corrected (i.e., maybe the uncorrected version should be ‘forgotten’).

    Such a right might be of little help to a person whose conviction was overturned on appeal (since stale but legitimate reporting about the conviction might dominate search results), but little help is probably preferred over no help.