‘The right to disappear’: Future of privacy in Europe?

By Anne Collier

The French call it “le droit à l’oubli – literally, the right to oblivion,” the Christian Science Monitor reports, which is – for most of us, now – what disappearing from the Internet would be like. It’s what the European Union wants for Internet users: the ability to erase their digital footprints. The Monitor leads with the anecdote of young Dubliner’s effort to remove all trace of himself from Facebook and the solution he arrived at, but that’s hardly the all of his digital footprint, and – by the nature of a user-driven and -produced social media environment, no one can wholly control all references to him or herself in the digital ether. Meanwhile, the EU also wants companies that “process” user data to have to prove somehow that “they need to collect the user data for which they ask,” the Monitor says, which could be a significant burden on companies about which there’s little or any research. “Viviane Reding, the EU’s justice commissioner, is pushing for tougher privacy safeguards in an effort to give Internet users more control of their personal data that is collected, stored, mined, and could potentially be sold by companies like Facebook, Google, or any of the vast number of sites where users upload photos, provide private details, and,” the Monitor adds, “every once in a while, post something embarrassing” – though user education and site transparency need to be prominent in any privacy mix, as users struggle to employ the privacy controls responsible sites already provide. The new rules, expected to go into effect later this year, put the EU out in front of other countries, including the US, the Monitor adds. A professor in Scotland cited in the article makes an interesting observation about the EU’s stronger privacy stance: the conflict, legally and ethically, between one person’s right to privacy and his friend’s freedom of expression – a problem in the US especially, this Scottish professor said, explaining that the US already has “a strong privacy regime” for data protection that the US doesn’t have in place (the EU is mostly trying to strengthen its existing laws). This really brings home how much privacy in today’s social media environment is a shared proposition – and often a negotiation between users.

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