The internet lives forever, which is probably one of the most frustrating things about it—if you’re unlucky enough to have the same name as a criminal, or used to engage in youthful antics, it’s likely that your internet reputation may follow you around for the rest of your life. Since 2014, Europeans have had the right to request links to pages containing sensitive personal information about them to be removed, under the rule called the ‘right to be forgotten’, which would only apply to EU citizens.
But even if that information got delisted in the EU, it appeared that delisted links were still available online to people outside of the EU. This knowledge led to a dispute between Google and the French privacy regulator CNIL, who tried to impose a fine after Google didn’t completely remove listings containing damaging information about people. Google then challenged this as the search giant said it had no obligation to remove information outside of the EU, which led to the case being referred up to the European Court of Justice.
On 24 September, Google won the legal ruling that would let it bypass this legislation outside of the EU, arguing that it could be used in harmful or nefarious ways by authoritarian governments.
The ‘right to be forgotten’ has always lacked clear structure, but it is based on a couple of fundamental principles. In 2013, the first draft legislation was introduced in the EU to make it possible for individuals to have information about themselves scrubbed from the internet. For that to happen, you have to be a resident of the EU, and then you, or someone representing you, can put in a request for the removal of URLs that are believed to be a violation of your privacy.
At this point, the validity of the request will, of course, be assessed for legitimacy before it’s approved. Google’s teams look at whether the information contained, such as a high school indiscretion, like a silly website, is irrelevant or inadequate or if it is just necessary to be made publicly available to whoever is making the request. If it is approved, it doesn’t mean that this information about someone is completely erased either, it just means that this information won’t show up if you google that specific person. In order to make sure that the person who is having this information appealed is actually involved in the process, some kind of identification has to be provided too.
In turn, Google has formed a significant advisory board to advise the company on what to do and how to regulate these demands. While Google has often said it prioritises the privacy of the people who use the search engine (there are roughly 3.5 billion searches every day), the company has long since said that it doesn’t necessarily agree with the motivations of this legislation. If Google refuses to comply or asserts that someone’s removal request is illegitimate, then people have to appeal to their local data protection agency, and these processes can be even more complicated. And still after going through all that, some websites and news agencies have often published the links that had been delisted, sometimes including the names of the people who were making the request in the first place, raising thorny questions around the public interest.
Google says that to date, it has received millions of requests for removal, and that the ultimate decision around removal is still carried out by a human, because of how crucial context is in many of these situations. Yet, the problem still remains—while Google might not display this information anymore, other websites outside of the EU still might, and it means that a website with information that someone wants removed will not always be completely erased.
In some ways, the right to be forgotten legislation was one of the early precursors to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), put in place in 2018, on top of the right to be forgotten. That’s why there have been some issues around how it was actually implemented. For example, in 2015, there was outrage after it was revealed that the past, botched operations of a British doctor had been removed from Google (after the doctor requested it to be so), despite the obvious public interest. While this is a piece of EU legislation, the effects of right to be forgotten have been evoked in courts in the U.S., and Consumer Watchdog, an organisation that advocates for the rights of consumers in the U.S., has also filed with a request for this right to be obtained in the U.S. as well.
Much of the criticism of the right to be forgotten ruling has centred on the threat it could pose to the right to freedom of speech, which is also a line of argument that Google pursued. The company argued that by delisting URLs around the world, it could give authoritarian governments unduly power, or could have harmful effects on the dissemination of information in society. Other tech companies, like Wikipedia and Microsoft, also supported Google’s campaign.
Crucially, the EU has continued to push for delinkings requested by EU citizens to also be carried forward into other Google domains, past just the European ones. This right to be forgotten legislation has only been applied in the EU, and the ruling last week demonstrated that it will remain that way. Google won.
However, the ruling did say that delisting must be accompanied by a serious attempt to encourage internet users not to access the information elsewhere, even if it’s not accessible within the EU. And even if the U.K. does leave the EU, the rules will still apply (for now). So if you have a dark past hidden somewhere online and wish for it to be deleted, send your request very soon, before it’s too late.
Earlier this month the European Parliament approved a number of new amendments to the highly criticised and controversial EU Copyright Directive, an extensive piece of legislation that works to tackle copyright infringement online. Thing is, it’s not exactly easy to determine what copyright means in the digital world of image hyperlinking, reposting, quoting and memes and, more importantly, who gets to profit from this culture.
Granted, some have praised the new legislation as groundbreaking for young creatives and companies as it (somewhat) shields them from Facebook, Twitter and Google profiting from the engagement of image sharing, meme culture and news sharing on their platforms. But at the same time, critics of the Copyright Directive have deemed the law as yet another step towards the death of the internet.
While the legislation is still in the works, there are two particular claws that have sent the internet into a fearful paralysis. Article 11, monikered the “hyperlink tax”, grants publishers the right to license their news articles when they are shared by other online platforms, and article 13, dubbed “the death of memes” or the “upload killer”, says that online platforms are liable for content uploaded by users that infringes copyright. The article works to protect creatives from the misuse of their online content, but might along the way kill our beloved meme culture.
From Beyoncé stuck in a desperate twerk on our Twitter feed, to young Mary Kate (or Ashley) Olsen infinitely lifting a thumbs accompanied by “you got it dude”, our meme culture, sometimes to our oblivion, is wholeheartedly reliant on the recycling of content; content that sometimes belongs to Warner Bros. and sometimes to young creatives at the beginning of their career, whose work is not properly protected from copyright breach. Disney can and will sue the misuse of its images, but the same cannot be said for a small business. And while the vitality of reposts, shares and the inevitable meme at times fall under the category of ‘good exposure’, they certainly do not yield costs per click. The hyperlink tax equally falls under a similar argument—content shared from smaller media companies is indeed a good driver of traffic, but producing revenue from hyperlinks and shares could support emerging media platforms who struggle to monetise on content.
In many regards, as meme enthusiasts mourn the beginning of the end, if done right, this piece of legislation could birth a new era for young creatives where their online work is better protected. The Society of Authors wrote in an open letter posted on August 30 that the “Copyright Directive seeks to modernise copyright for the digital age.” The letter outlines a number of positive outcomes, including, perhaps most importantly, “A transparency obligation, which would force publishers to be more transparent when reporting information to authors related to accounting and the exploitation of their works.”
Now this is not to say that criticism of the legislation is not valid. In an interview with The Verge, Julia Reda, MEP for the Pirate Party and one of the law’s leading critics, said that there are countless faults in the seemingly protective law. “The first is that exceptions or limitations to copyright on a European level different from country to country, and a lot of countries do not have exceptions for memes, for example. The second problem is that even where memes are legal, upload filters would not be capable of distinguishing between them and infringing material.”
How the bill develops is yet to be confirmed, for the time being however the pros and cons of it are in a tight battle—only time will tell whether the bill promises much of the same, where dominant platforms continue to tighten their grip over vast amounts of the web, or maybe, if it could shine a bright light for young creatives.