Resolved: The "right to be forgotten" from Internet searches ought to be a civil right.
IntroductionThis particular resolution and its implications are a consequence of modern technology and life in the digital age. In many ways, the Internet is a kind of world in which there are very tame, seemingly regulated places and there are other wild, one may say, unregulated areas. In the early days of the Internet, after its development as an information sharing network by the military and government contractors, it was viewed as a place where absolute freedom of expression flourished and many around the world strongly advocated it remain that way. Of course, in a completely open and unregulated world of the Internet, harmful messages and forms of expression also exist and soon international campaigns were launched to ban or outlaw certain messages and depictions which were more or less universally deemed harmful to certain groups - for example children. Of course every call for censorship has been met with an equally resounding outcry for freedom of speech and so the Internet continues to carry all manner of messages and depictions while some have been systematically shutdown.
This resolution deals with the unfortunate fact that some things, once they get on the Internet cannot be easily removed. For example, one photo, or one statement which is unflattering, derogatory or defaming released on the Internet may continue to circulate for years despite efforts by the "victim" to remove it. It can be removed from one site only to reemerge on another, and some, sites, citing freedom of expression may refuse to remove the content. The "right to be forgotten" is a movement of sorts, which attempts to establish a legal right to have personal information removed from Internet search engines since, virtually everything on the Internet these days, is accessed by way of a search engine. If, for example, I convince Google to remove all references to my name from its search engine, there is a real good chance, most people will never again run across my information when doing Internet searches. I will be essentially forgotten in the world of the Internet. Now, this does not mean certain websites are forced to remove the information about me, it only means search engines will not provide links to the information about me. However, there is a trend and in Europe a requirement, the right to be forgotten extends to all sites which hold or manage personal information about individuals.
Why This Resolution?The are several reasons why a person may want to be "forgotten" on the Internet. Very often, potential employers, universities, committees or organizations will search the Internet for information about people, potential candidates for jobs, student applicants, etc. Let's say for example, a student was charged with a petty crime at age 18 and the individual does not want that information (which may now be cleared from court records) to somehow be found on the Internet when making applications to colleges or for employment. The person could either legally change name, or somehow ask everyone who has information about the prior issue to kindly remove it from the Internet. Under the "right to be forgotten" the person could simply file whatever documentation is necessary to have the major search engines (or information repositories) remove the name from searches and for all intents and purposes no prior issue would be found. It would be naive to assume that employers, and universities do not search out candidates using specific information services and general search engines. Considering the infinite life-time of information, even if it is no longer accurate, such searches can be the difference between being selected or not for a job, appointment or position. Consider, the situation of an abused person or ex-spouse who is simply trying to "hide" from their domestic partners out of fear of exploitation or abuse. The right to be forgotten provides a means for individuals to maintain autonomy and live anonymously in the sometimes hostile world of the Internet. It may also be claimed the right to be forgotten protects one's right to privacy in accordance with the universal declaration of human rights, article 12.
Why Not This Resolution?There are many factors which make the right to be forgotten a difficult, perhaps even impossible principle to enforce and this may serve as justification for negating. Probably the single most important issue and the one that has been the bane of all calls to regulate Internet content, is freedom of speech. Of course, in the U.S. freedom of speech is a constitutional right guaranteed by the first amendment but by many counts it is considered an implicit right of all liberal democracies and an explicit universal human right under article 19. Further, one should consider that when two rights clash, for example UDHR Article 12 and UDHR Article 19, preference should be given to the one which carries the greater weight and certainly the loss of freedom of speech has a much bigger impact than the loss of privacy considering there is already very little privacy in the age of Google, Facebook, Twitter, NSA meta-data collect, etc.
Another big issue revolves around the issue of the public's "right to know" and the nature of factual information versus defamatory information. The freedom of speech has always been guaranteed under the provision that information published should be factual. In other words, it is illegal to publish information that is untrue or misrepresented. This extends to the issue of the public's right to know the truth. Certainly, it is a benefit to society to know that a certain individual is a convicted child molester and one would not want such people, "disappearing" from the Internet.
Finally, consider the fact that information about a person, may not be 'owned' by that person. for example, if I write a critique about the Prime Minister of Italy that he personally considers unflattering or contains information he does not want others to discover, what gives him the right to demand it be taken down as long as it is factually true and does nothing to present some other overriding social harm? The issue over information ownership is at stake and I am not willing to relinquish my intellectual property rights for the sake of some one's reputation, if the information I possess is true.
Examining the ResolutionThe "right to be forgotten" (RTBF) this is the terminology which defines what this debate is about; specifically the "right" to have personal information removed from the internet. But a precise definition of the terminology is somewhat elusive and may be regionally or ideologically influenced. One thing seems certain. The right to be forgotten does not necessarily mean one has a right to have all of their personal information removed without some kind of scrutiny and qualifications and these are likely to be disputed in the round.
The specifier "internet searches" seems to limit the debate favorably for the Aff. I say this because the EU law enacted this past summer also includes data collectors, which is much broader in scope than search providers. Technically a data collector is any service or site which collects and retains an individual's personal data. Under the terminology of the resolution, such data collectors need not be discussed. This means that while Google may be required to remove links to personal data, the personal data itself may remain on remote computer systems accessible from the web by persons who know how to retrieve it even though the EU law requires data collectors to comply with the removal request when the law allows.
Again we have the familiar word "ought" which in simplest terms means should with the implication it should be done because it is the right thing to do. If it helps, you can look at my previous examination of the word here.
Finally we at the term "civil right". I remind you (and in case you are a novice, I inform you) that individuals are generally granted two kinds of rights; natural rights and given rights. Natural rights are defined as the inalienable, god-given rights which every human being has in equal measure and which cannot be revoked (although one may choose to forfeit them). These include, life, liberty and property (or some may add happiness). The given rights are those granted by civil authority. In other words, the government grants certain rights such as the right to drive, or vote or participate in the government, or whatever. These rights may be revoked at various times by decree of the authority that grant them and generally they are protected by the authority that grants them. In the U.S. "civil rights" tend to have a narrower focus specifically referring to rights granted under the 13th and 14th amendments of the Constitution and generally referring to any rights guaranteed by the Constitution. However, for the sake of this resolution we should not limit the definition to the constraints of U.S. law.
More About the ResolutionThis resolution does not require us to debate this topic as a U.S. specific issue. Clearly, at this time, the European Union and several other nations seem to be the leaders of the "right to be forgotten" initiative so one does well to look at the issue with a more universal point of view. It is interesting, the Universal Declaration of Human Right potentially has conflicting articles considering the right to privacy versus the right to freedom of speech. When reading the various positions under the European point of view, this apparent conflict is small and easily resolved whereas in the U.S. the right to freedom of speech is a foundational principle of U.S. constitutional law which the Supreme Court has fervently defended.
The Aff position is here.