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The Right to Be Forgotten’s Criminal Loophole

A lot of ink has been spilled since Europe created the Right to be Forgotten, a law that lets citizens have information removed (more or less) from the internet. Considered a triumph for privacy by many Europeans, the RTBF has inspired copycats in Canada and Russia, and stirred up debate worldwide. From the beginning, opponents of RTBF claimed it would be misused—and according to one UK newspaper, that fear has come true.

The Criminal Element

The way RTBF works is simple. If you find inaccurate, outdated or irrelevant information about yourself online, you can petition to have it removed. You file a request with Google (or other search engines) and, if your request meets the criteria, the offending pages will be de-indexed from the search results. They’ll still technically be out there, but almost impossible to find.

There are limits to this. If you’re a public figure, you can’t have information about yourself removed; that info is deemed to be of value to the public at large. If the information is clearly recent and relevant, and not inaccurate, then it also stays up. And, normally RTBF can’t be used to remove information about a criminal proceeding—no tampering with the public record of your dodgy past.

But according to the Daily Mail, a British paper, this is where the law is open to a dangerous loophole. Convicted criminals themselves can’t get pages taken down—but what about their friends and family? Imagine if you were a witness in a criminal case, or if your name was mentioned in an article about your brother being on trial. If you asked for the pages to be de-indexed, you’d stand a decent chance of success.

The Daily Mail says that many of its own factual, recent news stories have been de-indexed, apparently because criminals wanted to clean up their reputation. The paper says all a convict needs to do is get a family member to file the request for them, and in some cases it works.

How much does this matter? Well, consider the sorts of cases the Daily Mail says are involved:

“Examples of links deleted by Google include a number of Mail articles detailing issues ranging from drug abuse to incest, murder and spying… [One] Mail story removed from Google concerned Ronald Castree, 61, a pedophile who abducted an 11-year old girl with learning difficulties before abusing and murdering her.”

It’s safe to say that the public has a right to know about pedophiles and murderers in their community.

The Damage

How important is it to keep these articles indexed? After all, Google isn’t the only way to find crucial information. Even when pages are removed, the public record of the cases is still available. Anyone who pays to do a criminal background check will turn up the info regardless.

But that clearly limits accessibility. Googling someone’s name has become an easy way to check out a date, a co-worker or a new neighbor. Ideally, if they were involved in a major crime that information would be highly placed in their Google results. Even the RTBF law itself considered criminal cases un-expungeable.

This will always be the problem with letting people take down public information. The internet has raised its fair share of privacy concerns, and certainly it makes it harder to keep secrets. But ultimately, once information is out in the public it’s dangerous to give anyone a “delete” key. That power will almost always be misused.

It’s easy to exaggerate the differences between the UK and the US. The Brits, supposedly, consider their right to privacy to be sacrosanct, while Americans prefer the convenience and usefulness of an open internet. But those stereotypes don’t always hold up. Plenty of Americans would like more privacy protection, and likewise, the first complaints of RTBF abuse comes from within the UK itself. If RTBF was meant to strike a balance between the two, so far it seems to be failing.