Nipping A Terrible Idea In the Bud

God bless America.

In policy debates over contentious issues like abortion, national health care, and capital punishment, a common argument, brandished like a flag , is that the United States is out of step with the rest of the world. My reflex reaction to that claim, when I can resist the impulse to say, “Good!”, is to point out that the rest of the world has never lacked for enthusiasms for terrible ideas, and the United States, by going in its own direction, has often been unique, innovative, and right.

Still, a bad idea abroad will inevitably inspire some enterprising social architect here to propose it, and a legislator to try to make it law. Thus, when possible, it is wise to try to identify and reject the most sinister examples of Europe being Europe before anyone here starts trying to play “me too.” In the case of Europe’s current push to create a so-called “right to be forgotten” on the internet, some very effective critics are on the case.

The BBC reports that the European Commission will soon adopt formal rules guaranteeing a “right to be forgotten” online.  The new regulation will become part of the Commission’s overhaul of the 1995 Data Protection Directive, and will mandate that “people will be able to ask for data about them to be deleted and firms will have to comply unless there are ‘legitimate’ grounds to retain it.” The policy is a classic example of the law stepping in when it is perceived that ethics isn’t working, but an even better example of the cure being worse than the disease. Yes, it is unfortunate when embarrassing, uncomplimentary, critical, half-true or misleading information about an individual becomes imbedded in search engine results, and it is often unfair. The online information may well adversely effect someone’s employment prospects, reputation and personal relationships, even though it misrepresents the individual’s character or life’s achievements. It certainly seems superficially fair and just for an individual to be able to seek privacy by forcing information that has no valid public purpose but that does great private harm to be removed.

But accomplishing the goals of this new “right” would in reality require a massive censorship and enforcement mechanism. As Adam Theirer writes ( in a terrific article with numerous links to papers and essays on the topic)…

“…for a “right to be forgotten” to work, a more formal and robust information control regime will need to be devised to censor the Net and make it “forget”about the digital footprints we left online….Beyond the chilling effect associated with dragnet takedowns of online information, it’s unlikely that approach will really work. Keep in mind, this isn’t as simple as just telling large social media operators to delete information on demand. The reality is, as computer scientist Ben Adida notes in his essay “(Your) Information Wants to be Free,” the same forces and factors that complicate other forms of information control, such a copyright and speech restrictions, also complicate the protection of facts about you. “[I]nformation replication doesn’t discriminate: your personal data, credit cards and medical problems alike, also want to be free. Keeping it secret is really, really hard,” Adida correctly notes.

“The fact is, information is instantaneously replicated online many times over on many different platforms — sometimes manually, sometimes automatically. Regulation will need to grapple with how to put the genie back in the bottle when countless others have already forwarded or commented on the piece of information someone later wants “forgotten.” And how would automated online archiving / storage services be affected? Will such sites and services be expected to find and purge every possible mention / reference of the offending information? Will they be compensated for the countless requests they receive to delete countless pieces of digital information, or are they just expected to do that out of the goodness of their hearts?”

In exchange for allowing individuals to re-claim their privacy (in an era when privacy may be well past re-claiming), a measure like Europe’s would also restrict free expression, research, and the preservation of a historical record while giving censors and those who would most benefit from censorship a powerful and sinister new tool.

Luckily, based on the recent reaction to Congressional attempts to police sites abusing copyright and trademark law, American orneriness and dedication to free exchange of information figure to make this particular bad idea from across the pond unlikely to travel well. Americans like privacy and fairness, but we still like freedom and free speech more.

We’re unique that way, and let’s hope that never changes.

21 Comments

Filed under Around the World, Citizenship, Government & Politics, Journalism & Media, Law & Law Enforcement, Science & Technology, The Internet, U.S. Society

21 responses to “Nipping A Terrible Idea In the Bud

  1. tgt

    I have a bit of a quibble with the setup to this post. It implies that the American ideas are necessarily better than European ideas. The U.S. being out of step with the rest of the world is not always “good”. Freedom of speech we got right,* but some aspects of socialism aren’t exactly evil.

    * I’m having selective memory about the need for FIRE and more than a few recent high profile politicians.

    • If that’s the impression I left, then I was inexact, because that’s not what I mean. I mean the inverse is NOT true…that just because the US does something differently, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It doesn’t mean it’s right.

  2. For myself, whenever I make a comment- whether it be verbally, in writing or online- I do so on the basis of my name being attached. That’s why I’ve never sought to post or speak under anything but my own name. If it’s worth saying, it’s worth taking responsibility for. That also means taking due diligence for the content of my words and being prepared to retract them should I misspeak in content or accuracy. Responsibility for one’s actions is the key to a viable free citizenry.

    Others see it differently- obviously! And that, I maintain, is a major difference between a healthy free society and a decadent one. What Europe needs is not a fatuous (at best) law that smothers the concept of responsible freedom of speech, but a vigorous First Amendment. In this, they need to look to our Founders, not to our present administration and certainly not to the forces of paternal socialism that dominates their own councils.

    • tgt

      In this, they need to look to our Founders, not to our present administration and certainly not to the forces of paternal socialism that dominates their own councils.

      Weren’t the federalist papers written anonymously? Anyway, I don’t see where the current administration has attacked free speech. That’s one of the civil rights they’ve actually been pretty good on, most recently backing the right for citizens to record police. Also, I don’t see what socialism has to do with free speech. They are orthogonal ideas.

      Finally, I agree with your main points: “That also means taking due diligence for the content of my words and being prepared to retract them should I misspeak in content or accuracy” and “What Europe needs is not a fatuous (at best) law that smothers the concept of responsible freedom of speech, but a vigorous First Amendment.”

    • Danielle

      I vote for letting the Europeans decide what Europe needs. Especially since Americans seem to be having problems dealing with what America needs…. school system, medical system, political system… you know, all the stuff we read about here ;)

    • interested Blogger

      Steven –
      I don’t disagree with some of the points you make. However … there is one thing I must take umbrage with. While I admire the fact that you choose to use you own name, rather than post under a web name, and that you take full ownership of all you post, there are often times valid reasons why others choose to remain anonymous – yet still want to participate in social/political dialogue. It does not always follow that they do not stand behind their convictions and words simply because they choose not to sign their legal names. I am a good example of this. I choose not to use my real name because my posts often contain information about my profoundly disabled child in relation to topics discussed here. To reveal my name could, potentially, put my child in harm’s way from a predator trolling the Net. Sound far-fetched? Think again. It happens every day. As a parent of an extraordinarily vulnerable child, I do whatever is necessary to keep my child safe. (Notice I also don’t say if my child is a boy or a girl as I write this.) Just thought I’d point out that not everyone chooses anonymity for lack of conviction about what they write or the chutzpah to back it up.

      • I understand what you’re saying. Believe me, with some of the “contentious” websites I’ve poked my big nose into, I was a little leery of giving out my name, too! And yes, I’ve gotten my share of threats. However (and unlike yourself) my concerns didn’t go beyond anything more than an occasional physical threat. When that occurred, I’d calmly remind the poster that I was a retired military cop who could take care of himself!

        Nor do I in any way fault your reasoning. One of the main reasons that I chose to be so upfront was because, at the beginning of my online excursions, I was doing a lot of counseling on websites (primarily open forum child actor fansites) to encourage kids to be careful in their personal security. A lot of adults in groups do that these days, as children are so talkative and vulnerable to online predators… and because the FBI and other enforcement groups just can’t handle it all. So I posted with my full name so that, if law enforcement had any questions as to my character or motives, I could make myself easily known.

        What I intended to make clear in my previous remarks was that the internet has now become the new equivalent of the town hall meeting. I was thinking in terms of public political discourse, which is what the Frist Amendment is all about. In that regard, I think its important that, if at all possible, one should be as open about one’s identity as one would if addressing a meeting in an auditorium. People are more likely to consider your words if they know who you are and what your background is.

        But yes, in any such activities and in any venue, there lies a factor of personal risk. And if that risk can be extended to a vulnerable family member (children in particular) then discretion is naturally called for. I’m sorry that I didn’t make that plain.

  3. I’d respond that the authorship of the Federalist Papers was no secret. My point on socialism was that it, by its nature, is statist and not promoting of individual responsibility and merit.

    • tgt

      I think the point of the anonymity of the federalist papers is that ideas speak louder than people. That’s not particularly important though.

      I don’t think your point on socialism is quite right. For starters, European countries tend to be a mix of socialist ideas and capitalist ideas. This combinationis about individual responsibility and merit, by allowing the poor and unlucky access to the “advantages” that have been traditionally reserved for the privileged…like schooling, good healthcare, and mistake forgiveness. With socialist capitalism, we have more of a meritocracy than pure socialism or capitalism on it’s own. Adding socialist idea to capitalism (not replacing capitalism) seems like a good idea to me.

  4. Oh, I disagree. Ideas speak louder when they derive from someone who’s noted for previous works of wisdom. Washington, Hamilton, Adams… there was a long list of extraordinary men in those days. Their words speak to us today with unalienable truths.

    I’d also say that socialism and capitalism cannot exist in easy partnership. The philosophies behind each- politically, economically and morally- are as divergent as it gets. I’d point out also that, in a truly free society (which encompasses a free economy of necessity) the rule of law (not men) is a central ideal. This does not carry over into the statist/secular/socialist society where it becomes an institutionalized matter of privilege for the politically well connected. Merit is a free economy value, not a socialist one.

    • tgt

      I’d also say that socialism and capitalism cannot exist in easy partnership.

      It’s a more complicated idea. Socialism is demonized because it has been paired with the traditional enemy of capitalism, but it doesn’t have to be.

      Capitalism is about freedom of individuals in the market. Socialism is about what’s best for the society as a whole.

      I’d point out also that, in a truly free society (which encompasses a free economy of necessity) the rule of law (not men) is a central ideal. This does not carry over into the statist/secular/socialist society where it becomes an institutionalized matter of privilege for the politically well connected.

      I agree to the first statement, but not the latter. I don’t see why secular and socialist societies are any more liable to corruption than religious and greedy societies. Isn’t the knock on socialism the benefits for the freeloading poor? Not exactly a politically well connected group. The institutionalized corruption of wall street is capitalism at its worst. Socialism tempers the excesses of capitalism.

      Merit is a free economy value, not a socialist one.

      Merit is a Free economy ideal, but not achievable without socialism. Merit isn’t counter to socialism. That’s communism you’re thinking of.

  5. 1. SOCIALISM demonized? I’d say that this was done by its primary adherents already. Mao, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Lenin… to mention a few. Deeds speak louder than words.

    2. That socialism is for the “greater common good” and capitalism is not is one of the great myths upon which the socialist movement is based. Another is that competition is “wasteful”.

    3. A company only has access to what funds its clientele grant it for services performed. A socialist entity not only has no competitor and allows none but, as a part of a monolithic government, has access to as much public sequestered funds as they can talk their bureaucratic masters out of. Thus does utter corruption come into sway, since no skill but craft & graft is necessary to lay one’s hands on a chunk of the One Big Treasury.

    4. The “freeloading poor”, as you call them, are damn well certain an influential group with the Left. Without their pro-entitlement bloc votes, the Democrat Party would be history. Thus, too, why the Left must stamp out the Middle (Bourgeousie) Class. Independent, godly and free willed people are an anathema to the statist society, whose economic chains are called socialism.

    5. Merit is lauded by socialist/communist societies, but despised in practice. The only merit that counts with them is loyalty to their political masters.

    • tgt

      1. It was the communism that didn’t work, not the socialism. You just illustrated my point.

      2. Capitalism is brutal. Those at the bottom end of the spectrum get destroyed. That’s not good for all people in a society.

      3. That’s a whitewash of capitalism and ignores the general ignorance of the populace.

      4. I’m glad you realize that only the left cares what happens to the underprivileged. The idea the left is trying to get rid of the middle class, though, is just ridiculous. The policies of the left are designed to keep a middle class; those of the right, led to their natural conclusions, get rid of the middle class. The last statement is just a repeat of your prior BS. Socialism is actually well supported in Christianity.

      5. Socialism is not communism. Again, you’ve proven my earlier point. That last sentence is also completely out of left field.

  6. Pingback: Nipping A Terrible Idea In the Bud | Ethics Alarms | StopAPredator

  7. Michael

    Back to the issue at hand. I was looking up something about the space shuttle Columbia disaster today and I noticed that all of the articles had a vastly different account than I had seen just after the accident. None of the contemporary articles and accounts remained, just this post-Columbia inquiry version. Several hinted at the original story, but the names and implications were removed. This is the danger of removing information from the public. What if Newt had gotten the ‘right to be forgotten’ several years ago when his political career looked washed up?

  8. Proam

    I dunno, Jack. Maybe the Europeans are on to something that Americans and other peoples will cope with out of necessity, later if not sooner – maybe cope with very similarly, maybe not, depending in part on how governments evolve and become similar or dissimilar (and effective or ineffective). And, 1984-ish Orwellian as it is, or seems, maybe it is not such a terrible idea to work urgently to address worthiness of information to be “forgotten” – with utmost care devoted to keeping distinct what are (or should be) rights versus what are (or should be) privileges.

    It seems too clear that too often, the impacts of the newer information technologies reflect that they have been exploited in the same way that dinosaur DNA was exploited in “Jurassic Park” (if you’re familiar with that movie) – with similar inherent issues and with similar, ominous results.

    This isn’t meant to be anything grandiose, just brainstorming: Technological advancement and its exploitation must be expected to influence the course of human events as surely, as beneficially, and as terribly as the converse. Following from that expectation, governments and the global citizenry governed thereby must anticipate and address events (and their courses), technologies (and their advancement and exploitation), and the influences of events and technologies upon each other, with utmost timeliness, urgency, diligence, and ethical integrity.

    (Please don’t put me in charge of the EPA, FDA or NSA just yet!)

    I appreciate the “law” of unintended consequences and the risks of a cure being worse than a disease. But we must appreciate the “law” of neglected reality, too – that is, how the longer a reality is neglected, the likely more arduous the recovery from lack of prior action, and the likely higher the risk of being overwhelmed. (Someone reading that might infer that I support a carbon tax, or should support one. But I do not support such a tax at this time.)

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