The European Commission (EC) is proposing to create a brand new right in its data privacy regulations called "the right to be forgotten," which would make Internet companies liable for 2% of their global income if they fail to remove content that users post online but then later regret doing so. The hotly debated right to be forgotten is paving a collision course between American free speech advocates (and Internet companies) and Europe's vocal privacy advocates. (Jeffrey Rosen has this excellent summary of the issue here.)
"What they're saying is that I am an autonomous moral actor, I should be able to interface with the world in a way that I want and that means that I should be able to withdraw what I put out there, I should be able to withdraw what I've put out there in the world," explained Andrew McLaughlin, Tumblr Vice President and former U.S. Deputy CTO during New America Foundation's annual retreat (video posted yesterday at Slate). But, what happens when someone else -- a friend, a journalist -- uses the retracted content in their own postings? Would they then be forced to delete their content too and would re-posters of that content be forced to delete their content, sparking a chain reaction of mass content deletion?
That's the heart of the free speech collision. "The problem with that is in a digital world of speakers and listeners you may have the right to forget what you've said but you don't have the right to make people forget what they've heard you say," McLaughlin said.
From an American perspective, the right to be forgotten looks nuts. But, "the Europeans are not, like, crazy," McLaughlin, who also served as Director of Global Public Policy for Google, said. "When they think about the right to forget, they think about the Stasi. We don't have that historical experience in this country."
On top of that the United States is an outlier in the global spectrum in terms of the minimal amount of speech that is restricted. Other countries, including democracies such as the UK, Brazil, India and others, have "through democratic processes recurrently re-legitimated its set of speech restrictions that flows out of a set of cultural values and a set of norms," McLaughlin said.