Right to be forgotten or a little empathy?
By Simon Lerner
Right to be forgotten or a little empathy?
22 May 2015 - Data

emoji-angry-facesWhilst academics request greater transparency from Google over how it processes “right to be forgotten” requests, the public discussion moves closer to home.

Earlier this month, 80 major academics, many of whom are legal scholars, sent an open letter to Google requesting that it be more open on how it passes judgement on so-called “right to be forgotten requests.”

For those that do not know, this is Google’s new internal system for processing complaints, created in response to the EU ruling last July that people have the right to take down search results where they are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant.”

The message is straightforward and runs something like this. Some 250,000 requests have been processed. This new strand of corporate jurisprudence shouldn’t be shut away in the boardroom. Justice should be seen to be done. Let’s have unfettered access to data to inform public debate and policy development.

For many, the letter echoes criticism made at the outset of the ruling – that companies should not be compelled to make complex value judgements as to where the balance lies between the right to privacy and accommodating access to data, which properly belong in our highest courts.

However, as Google is under pressure, much has been going on in the public arena which questions whether Freedom of Expression vs. Right to Privacy is really at the centre of this issue. Are we talking about fundamental rights and finite nuances of data protection law or something more familiar – empathy and shame?

In March, high profile satirist and journalist Jon Ronson released “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” warning of a renaissance of public shaming that manifests on social media. A cult of indignation in which a clumsy joke can result in wildly disproportionate public fury, as Twitter users voice outrage in a swirling cycle of mutual approval.

The result, Ronson says, is trauma, as objects of ire find themselves caricatured into a negative cultural reference. He uses a series of anecdotes to illustrate his point involving the infamous and formerly unknown, and covering topics ranging from social media jokes, to accusations of plagiarism and sex scandals.

In the same week as the book hit the shelves, Monica Lewinsky delivered a landmark TED talk where she relayed her thoughts on a life forged by public humiliation and called out on “technology enhanced shaming.”

Tellingly, neither Lewinsky nor Ronson are calling for new data laws, a “right to be forgotten” or censorships of any kind.   The problem, they say is not regulatory, or necessarily corporate, but lies firmly in the cultural sphere. Much internet abuse, Ronson says, comes from a desire to show empathy and commitment to social justice, in which we end up showing no empathy at all – a “cognitive dissonance” we can’t admit.

The answer for both is surprisingly simple – behaving in a more compassionate and humane way online.

The picture is far from entirely cynical. Lewinsky talks of the great leaps, which have been made in our understanding of cyber bullying and harassment since her rise to notoriety.

She has returned to the public sphere precisely because of its immense capacity for positive impact. The speed at which she has transformed the negativity surrounding her image is surely testament to that.

Jon Ronson still loves Twitter. His message is that it’s really up to us how we use it.

We will have to see how much the shifting ground in public discourse will impact the regulatory debate.