We all make mistakes. We all do and say things that we wish we could take back. But in today’s world, instead of maybe a few dozen people being privy to a particular faux pas, it could be a few hundred or a few thousand. In the case of celebrities, like Ashton Kutcher and Spike Lee, it could be a few million. Thanks to sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, every misstep or misspoken word could make its way around the world in 80 seconds before you’ve even had a chance to realize your mistake.
Well, the powers that be in Europe want to put an end to all of that, even if it means squashing freedom of speech. In January 2012, the European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship Viviane Reding announced the European Commission’s intention to create a law known as the “right to be forgotten.” This new law would allow people to demand that sites like Facebook and Twitter completely erase embarrassing photos and comments from their pages. Sounds like a good idea, right? Wait … it gets worse. Not only would the sites have to erase any embarrassing content that the user posted, but if others copied and pasted that content to their Facebook or Twitter pages or on Pinterest or personal blogs or whatever, Facebook or Twitter would be responsible for removing the content from those other places, too. If the site refuses to take the necessary steps to completely eradicate the embarrassing data from the Internet, it could be fined as much as two percent of its annual global income or up to €1,000,000.
But wait … it gets even worse than that. Sites like Google and Yahoo can also be pressured into removing all references and links to the embarrassing content, which could result in the search engines’ being unable to list anything about a particular person.
If you think that sounds ridiculous, you’re not alone. A detailed article by Jeffrey Rosen in the Stanford Law Review discusses the drawbacks to such a law.
For example, when Ashton Kutcher made the mistake of announcing on Twitter that he was excited about the start of the college football season, which happened to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, he was vilified. Now, under the right to be forgotten law, he could not only pressure Twitter to completely erase any and all remnants of that remark from his own Twitter account but also demand that Twitter delete every re-tweet of it. If anyone copied and pasted the comment to his Facebook page, Twitter would have to take steps to have it deleted. Every newspaper, magazine and blog that printed an article referring to and/or linking to the comment on Kutcher’s Twitter feed would have to delete it. But it would be up to Twitter, not Kutcher, to make this happen.
If the right to be forgotten, in its current form, becomes law in Europe, how long will it be before legislators in the United States try to implement it as well? One thing is for sure, when they do, they’ll be in for the fight of their lives.