The Right to Be Forgotten: Why Does it Matter if you have Nothing to Hide?



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Source: Google Images

The concept of privacy is rather challenging to define, although scholars and novelists have strived for decades to conceptualise the idea using rhetoric and metaphor. You might recall George Orwell’s 1984, which painted a futuristic repressive government that uses surveillance and propaganda to control all of us and invade our privacy.  Charles Fried, American lawyer, believed that without privacy, “we lose our very integrity as persons” (Whitman, 2004). In recent days, it is typical to hear students and peers chatting about privacy in an ego-centric, I-don’t-want-my-boss-to-see-that type of way, but the implications of digital privacy go far beyond ourselves.

While everyone seems to have a different opinion about the boundaries and complexities of this issue, at least research can conclude that privacy is important to us, and to some degree it is a fundamental aspect of our self-concept (Whitman, 2005; Volokh, 2000). There are certain ideas, opinions, and social classifications that we want our peers to know about us, and there are some parts of us that we would rather keep to ourselves. Because we are a part of an ever-evolving society that is currently overwhelmed with Internet data traps documenting our every move, it is no doubt that the rights and restrictions of our privacy are dramatically shifting.


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Source: Google Images


The Right to be Forgotten

The “right to be forgotten” is a conversation that emerges from the privacy debate. Advocates for this idea believe that we each have the right to remain unstigmatised by an action or event in the past (Volokh, 2000). While this concept can be applied to criminal records and credit rating reports, we are noticing the conversation shift to a social media context. The recent debate prompts social media citizens to consider if you should have the right to be forgotten online from, say, an embarrassing photo of you after 7 cocktails or if Kim K. can request her embarrassing photos to be removed from the web.


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Source: Google images

The European Union is the first to create legislation for digital privacy. In 2006, Europe ruled to mandate “data controller’s,” like Google, from publishing information that was inaccurate, out-of-date, irrelevant, or an invasion of privacy (Arthur, 2014). But for the rest of us non-Europeans who have our own digital skeletons, there are very few laws to protect our online privacy.

The right to be forgotten on social media networking sites (SNS) ranges over a complicated spectrum. At the least controversial end of the spectrum, most users agree that if you post a photo to your own social media site, you should have the right to delete it at will. Further along the spectrum, it is far more complex to consider the consequences should someone post a photo, write a hate article, or expose your personal information without your consent. If the information is true, thoughtful and seemingly not harmful, should the author be mandated by a third party to remove their post?



In many countries, this third party does not exist, at least not yet. As Hinton & Hinton (2013) mentions, the online communication networks are largely unregulated by any local or federal police. While SNSs have designated community managers to facilitate “appropriate” conversation, there is much ambiguity around what is considered ‘appropriate’ and to whom. For instance, we discussed in our seminar at length that Facebook has fairly specific set of ‘community standards’ that range everywhere from nipple coverage to bullying, but unfortunately, Facebook doesn’t mention anything about protecting users should their personal information become exposed or reputation become compromised. Although, that might not be such a bad thing; in fact, some scholars think that once information is published, we shouldn’t be able to delete it.

Censorship and Rewriting the Internet

Criticism for the right to be forgotten stems from the principle of accountability and the right to free speech.  Some research suggests that the notion of privacy is being used to justify censorship (Arthur, 2014; Fleischer, 2011; Volokh, 2000). By definition, censorship is noted as the “suppression of speech, public communication or other information which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities or other such entities” (Arthur, 2014). This argument suggests that if the government can be used to mandate you talking about me, it sets a dangerous precedent to (Volokh, 2000).

Consider this: what if you post a photo of yourself on a holiday, dressed in your swimmers and drinking a pina colada, and someone else reposts it to their own website— let’s say for “#inspiration.” If you decide to delete your photo (as is your right), and you request the other person to delete the photo of you, but they refuse or don’t respond to your request, you are left with few options other than to contact the platform it was posted on. By asking the platform to delete a photo that is posted in someone else’s album, it is difficult for the mediators to distinguish between a privacy claim and the album owner’s “freedom of expression” (Fleischer, 2011).

Revenge Porn

On the “extreme” side of the privacy spectrum, it is useful to consider the “revenge porn” websites that have surfaced around the Internet. These websites are mediums for ex-lovers to publish nude photos and videos that were once created with consent. On some of these sites, in addition to submitting images, participants can submit the Facebook and Twitter profile of the person in the photo, providing context and accessibility to the consumers of these images. Until very recently, if you were a victim of this type of harassment, there were no laws in place to protect you. Fortunately, recent legislation protects our ex-lovers from “expressing their freedom of speech” in a way that degrades other humans without their consent.

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Source: Google images

We can expect this issue to compound in the near future. While many of us have   avoided our childhoods being published to the web, much of the emerging generation will have a legacy of photos on the web before they can even walk, talk, or decide how they would like to be portrayed. As adults we have the opportunity to selectively and strategically decide which parts of our lives will be published, but can you imagine growing up in an era where your personal brand is decided for you by the time you’re 5 years old?

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Source: @vanessaprosser

This semester, my own campaign used professional images to portray customers dining at a hypothetical cafe, laughing and enjoying their food. These photos seem to be at the least controversial end of the spectrum, but as a social media manger, it is important to consider all aspects and repercussions of distributing content. It was necessary to consider if photos of children should be used in my campaign, considering they are not old enough to consent to their photo being taken or published. After doing this research, I have also made a future commitment to respond to every photo inquiry with empathy and consideration for the photo subject.

In conclusion, privacy and the right to be forgotten will continue to evolve as humans find a way to push the boundaries and break the rules. More and more regulations will inevitably be created and enforced by the social media platforms as time goes on. It will certainly be interesting to see if a third-party “police” agency is designed to regulate digital spaces and if so, what sort of individual power we will have and the consequences that come to those who do not comply with regulations. Until these intermediaries are created, we might use this conversation as a reminder to be careful about what you post, what you do in public that might be filmed by other people, and who you send your naked selfies to.





Arthur, C. (2014, July 05). What is Google deleting under the ‘right to be forgotten’ – and why? Retrieved April 19, 2016, from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jul/04/what-is-google-deleting-under-the-right-to-be-forgotten-and-why

Fleischer, P. (2011, March 9). Peter Fleischer: Privacy…? Retrieved April 19, 2016, from http://peterfleischer.blogspot.com.au/2011/03/foggy-thinking-about-right-to-oblivion.html

Hill, K. (2011, July 5). Revenge Porn With a Twist. Retrieved April 19, 2016, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2011/07/06/revenge-porn-with-a-facebook-twist/#14baa4e16408

Hinton, S. & Hjorth, L. (2013). What is Web 2.0?. In Steele M (Ed), Understanding social media (pp14-36). Great Britain: Serpentine Gallery

Volokh, E.. (2000). Freedom of Speech and Information Privacy: The Troubling Implications of a Right to Stop People from Speaking about You. Stanford Law Review, 52(5), 1049–1124. http://doi.org.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/10.2307/1229510

Whitman, J. Q.. (2004). The Two Western Cultures of Privacy: Dignity versus Liberty. The Yale Law Journal, 113(6), 1151–1221. http://doi.org.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/10.2307/4135723


3 thoughts on “The Right to Be Forgotten: Why Does it Matter if you have Nothing to Hide?

  1. This a really well written piece. It’s balanced and well researched ! Congrats!

    I think when we talk about our right to privacy – we need to stop talking abstractly. At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual.

    You can’t have the best of both worlds. If you want to have a social media presence, the truth is people will be able to find out about you. If you leave any sort of cyber/paper trail they will. If you don’t want everyone knowing your business try to keep things to a minimum when it comes to sharing.We need to understand that there are risks when we share private information…at the end of the day people use information to their own ends. You need to protect yourself always.

    Would love to have your insightful comments on this piece I wrote too : https://rinsebeforeuse.wordpress.com/2016/04/21/great-sexpectations/


  2. I enjoyed reading your thought provoking blog. This is such a fascinating and cloudy area at present.

    Fundamentally, for me, the points you raise deal with aspects of power, the removal of that power, and the lack of recourse currently available.

    The right to be forgotten section of your post really engaged me. I strongly believe in individual responsibility, but have been guilty of negligence in this area, and think it’s unrealistic to expect individuals not to make mistakes.

    Society is happy to hold public figures, mainly politicians and sports stars, to account for their actions, words and images, both past and present but we’re less comfortable when that gaze turns towards us. Clearly, there is a double standard.

    Perhaps, in some respects, society has yet to fully normalise social media. What I mean by this is for younger users today social media has always been there. In ten years, a photo after seven cocktails might be just seen as a normal event, not something embarrassing.

    For me the key is who posted what. I agree that users should be encouraged to think about the possible future repercussions of their present actions. The concerning angle is the third party involvement, where users have no power to stop or change an action undertaken by another party.

    It’s an exciting space and there will no doubt be much debate, and action, in the years to come.



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