Where does the U.S. stand on “right to be forgotten” policy?

Whether we follow the EU’s lead will be debated at ALA 2016 Midwinter session

Image of people on their laptops in a coffeehouse.

The Right to be forgotten issue raises a fundamental tension between the rights of individuals and society (Image: Wikimedia)

In the European Union, a user has the right to have links to certain personal information removed from the results of web searches involving his or her name. This “right to be forgotten”(RTBF) has stimulated robust debate about the appropriateness of such a regime in other countries. ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) will delve into the pros and cons about its possible adoption here in the U.S. during a Breakout session on Saturday, January 9, at 10:30-11:30 a.m. at ALA’s Midwinter Conference at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

Expert speakers include Gail Slater, vice president, legal and regulatory policy, Internet Association, which represents the leading Internet companies, and James G. Neal, university librarian emeritus, Columbia University, member of the board of trustees, Freedom to Read Foundation, and a member of ALA’s executive board. The session will be moderated by Alan S. Inouye, director of ALA’s OITP.

The “right to be forgotten” refers to an individual’s right to compel a search engine service to have a process for removing links to certain personal information from search results involving his or her name. Personal blogs, arrest records, explicit photos and business critiques are now typically published forever. Should individuals have the right to have links to certain personal information removed from web search results? Under most current applications of RTBF, information is not removed or destroyed at its source. Rather, a search engine or web page owner prevents links from appearing in the search results list that is produced following a name search. The originally published information generally remains available and could potentially be located by using a different search engine or by trying different search terms. However, in some applications of RTBF, the underlying published information may, in fact, be removed.

Dan Lee, chair of the OITP Advisory Committee and director of the Office of Copyright Management and Scholarly Communication at the University of Arizona, explains that:

“Libraries and librarians preserve and provide access to information. Since RTBF obscures information or essentially hides it from those searching on the Internet, it effectively removes access to information. This poses a challenge to a librarian’s social responsibility to help users find the information they need, and is especially harmful when there is a clear public interest in having access to it.  On the other hand, people should have control over the visibility of their own information. Sometimes, there are compelling reasons for why access to certain information should be eliminated or minimized. Thus, there is a fundamental tension between the rights of individuals and society. This should be a very interesting panel.”

About Nancy Gravatt

Nancy Gravatt was a press officer of the American Library Association's Washington Office.

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