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​Russia’s “Right To Be Forgotten” Is a Blast from the Soviet Past

Ever since the European Union created its “Right to Be Forgotten” rule, nations around the world have watched to see if it works. Many wonder whether they should have a similar rule of their own. It looks like Russia has decided the answer is yes—but their version is a lot scarier than Europe’s.

The Right to Be Forgotten (RTBF) is a simple concept that says not everything should stay on the internet forever. If someone publishes lies about you online, for example, there should be a way to have them taken down. The easiest way is to simply block them at the search engine level. Search engines like Google can simply stop showing the offending pages in search results, meaning that virtually no one will ever find them. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s an effective way to add privacy protections to the internet.

In Russia, however, not all privacy is created equal. Russian lawmakers are two votes away from passing their own take on RTBF, and this one would be as much at home in the Soviet Union as it is in Putin’s Russia today.

The Russian Way

Russia’s RTBF bill doesn’t explicitly function as a government censorship vehicle, but the way it’s worded allows it to be used indiscriminately against any website that vaguely whiffs of sedition. There are two key differences from the European RTBF:

  1. Russia’s version applies to public figures. In Europe, it’s recognized that the public has a right to know about accusations or old scandals involving public figures. Thus, politicians or celebrities are unlikely to get pages scrubbed just because they don’t like what’s on them. In Russia, the opposite is true. Public figures can use RTBF to quell scandals.
  2. No specific link is needed. In the EU, to file a RTBF request you have to provide a link to the exact web page you say is a problem. The search engine can then review that page and either drop it or not. In Russia, you don’t need to provide any link at all. You can just say “information about my drunken fraternity parties” and expect the search engine to find, and expunge, all relevant info in the world.

If that second bullet seems outright ludicrous, it is. There is literally no way for a search engine to do this. It’s not that it’s hard, or that it would cost money; it’s technologically impossible. Search technology is increasingly context-based, but there’s no way for machines (or people) to look at billions of indexed web pages and decide which ones do, or do not, relate directly to a specific event you want covered up. Russian search engine Yandex has tried to explain this to government leaders, but whaddya know—no one’s listening.

Right To Be Shut Down

The reason Russia’s RTBF is so extravagant isn’t that Russian lawmakers don’t “get” technology. It’s that they plan to use it for a lot more than just privacy rights.

The technological impossibility and general vagueness of the RTBF rule make it perfect for shutting down political opponents. When a Russian oligarch or one of Putin’s inner circle hears a news story they don’t like, they can request to have it taken down for “privacy reasons.” Lacking any specific web pages to review, search engines have to decide what news stories or web sites to de-index. In order to avoid government penalties they’ll need to err on the side of censoring more, not less. Basically any scandal, exposé or political opinion can be removed from the internet, or search engines will pay the price.

That may sound like overkill, but in a country where journalists frequently disappear or turn up dead, it’s not far fetched. Russia as a country has firmly embraced the free market economy, but certain government practices are stuck squarely in the Soviet era—and aggressive censorship is chief among them.

As a bonus, the Russian RTBF presumes to apply globally, censoring search results outside of Russia. Maybe at least now Europe and Canada will understand the problem with their own global overreach.