Deleting History

In May the highest court in the European Union decided that everyone living in that jurisdiction now has a new basic human right: the right “to be forgotten”. The facts in the matter are ones many people can relate to, the persistence of unflattering or inconvenient personal information on the web.

In the matter before the Luxembourg-based ECJ, an attorney named Mario Costeja González previously filed a complaint with the Spanish Data Protection Agency claiming that his privacy rights had been violated. Specifically, Gonzalez was displeased that entering his name in Google’s search engine drew results including a legal notice dating back to a 1998 story on his forced property sale to satisfy mounting personal debt.

I find the whole issue fascinating. And as many analysts of the story1 have pointed out, the court’s decision generates far more questions than it provides answers. Starting with, is it even possible to completely rewrite your own history in a digitized, always recording world?

Of all the commentary I’ve seen, this seven minute segment from John Oliver’s new show pretty much nails many of the problems behind the concept of being forgotten.

So, now reports about this decision from the New York Times and hundreds of other media outlets, not to mention posts on thousands of other sites with far less authority (like this one), are posted on the web. In fact, the court’s own ruling is posted online.

Certainly all those documents have been sucked up into search engines and indexed. Are web indexing services obligated to censor all those articles as well? And what happens if I’m in a EU country but do my searching on the US version of Google?

As far as I can tell, the court’s decision only seems to apply to Google and similar general search tools. Is the next step ordering the original source, in this case a completely legitimate legal notice, to pull down the materials? Does the law also extend to social media like Facebook and Twitter. The justices didn’t say.

However, the more difficult question raised by this particular ruling are under what circumstances does information get blocked? The court only said that it should happen “in certain cases where the information contained is deemed ‘inadequate’ or ‘irrelevant’”. No ambiguity there.

From everything I’ve read, it’s not likely a right to be forgotten will be established as matter of general law in the US since the concept of free speech with few limitations has a long established legal history. But there are some efforts to enact what are called “eraser” laws like the California bill due to take effect next year giving “residents under 18 a limited right to delete personal information that they, as registered users of sites and networks, posted online or on a mobile app”.

Anyway, I’m sure there are many more ripples coming from this legal decision and more thinking to be done.

If nothing else, it should bring into question the validity of the search results you get. We already know that Google, Bing, and whoever their competitors are manipulate the listings returned to some degree.

But, in the end, rather than working hard to edit history, wouldn’t everyone’s time and effort be better spent by proactively building the positive internet presence they want the world to see? Certainly less stressful, not to mention fewer legal fees, than playing web whac-a-mole.

One more thing: although he sometimes gets a little hyperbolic (but rarely wrong), Jeff Jarvis’ post “The right to remember, dammit” is also worth a read.

Teachable Moment

For those who’ve missed all the shouting in certain circles of the web, today is the day the web goes on strike. At least here in the US, where our congress critters are considering two bills that, quite frankly, should scare everyone who publishes content online.

The proposed laws, as do many these days, have somewhat Orwellian names: Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). I mean, who wouldn’t want to join either of those worthy causes?

Well, take a few minutes to watch this video about the many unintended consequences that are likely to come with the vaguely written, open-ended PIPA (SOPA is only slightly different in language but not in the mechanics), primarily written by representatives of the big content producers, the MPAA and RIAA.

PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

All that, and neither will stop people who really want to illegally distribute copyrighted content.

In addition to violating any number of Constitutional rights, these laws would have an enormous chilling effect on legitimate fair use of copyrighted material as well as the diversity of speech so badly needed in the world today.

Both laws also start with some very false premises (such as piracy is costing the US billions of dollars and millions of jobs), as explained by Tim O’Reilly.

Take a look around the web today and you’ll find many sites have gone dark in opposition to SOPA and PIPA (including Wikipedia, Reddit, Mozilla, WordPress, and several thousand others). I’m sure many people who have never heard of SOPA or PIPA will notice as they try to go about their normal web surfing.

However, although I thought about doing the same – taking this site dark (despite being a very, very small corner of the web) – I’m an educator and it seems to me that helping anyone who arrives here, by design or accident, understand the issues is a more effective way of making the point. Same idea, different style. Thus this post you are now reading (thank you!).

However, no matter which process makes you aware of the situation, as a web user, and probably a web content creator, it’s important to understand just how dangerous this kind of legislation is and why it’s in your best interest to actively oppose it.

Take a few more minutes today to contact your congress critter. Tell them to throw out this crap (be nice :-) and instead work on rules that support genuine net neutrality and fair use.

Then spend a few dollars and join the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit organization that has been a leader in the fight against this and other attempts to censor voices and ideas around the world.

The Firewall of Fear

In his reflection on the speakers from the first day at the Building Learning Communities conference, Jeff articulates beautifully a major stumbling block we have in American education: fear.

In this case, fear of allowing too much of the outside world into the classroom, and especially the fear of allowing almost anything from inside out.

“There’s no way my district will ever let us use any of these social tools, they’re scared.”

I’m sure many of you have either said this or have heard someone who has said this.

Alan November kicked off the conference today with one simple message:  We need to break down the Firewall fear

The same country that believes in free speech and the freedom of the press is the same country with some of the most restrictive filtering systems in its schools.

In our overly-large school district, for what seems like decades, we’ve been working on “internet safety” rules/regulations/curriculums to go with the web filtering system, all in the name of protecting kids from… well, no one can articulate exactly what.*

But, as Jeff points out, protection is something we can’t give them.

We need to break through this culture of fear, we need to empower students to make decisions, to analyze and evaluate good content and learn how to avoid the bad stuff. We need to empower students to protect themselves.

At the same time our politicians and administrators also talk about teaching “21st century skills” (like communication and collaboration), and about how students must be “globally aware” citizens of the world.

Making that happen is impossible when there is no direct interaction with that world.  When all feedback on what students do in school comes exclusively from within that closed environment.

And it certainly won’t happen when we teach kids (not to mention the adults in their lives – parents and teachers) that the web is something to be feared, instead of helping them understand how to deal with it, the good, bad, and ugly.

Jeff is exactly right that “Creativity and fear do not mix.”

Creative people, something else we say we want our students to be, take risks.  They learn how to deal with failure.  They learn from and respond to their critics.

The last thing creative people do is hide behind a firewall.


*Maybe to protect us from the lawyers? Often it seems that’s the overriding concern.

A Picture of Paranoia

Here’s yet another strange campaign to make the general public even more paranoid.

The London Metropolitan Police are running newspaper ads asking the public to be on the look out for “odd looking photographers“.

Thousands of people take photos every day. What if one of them seem odd?

Terrorists use surveillance to help plan attacks, taking photos and making notes about security measures like the location of CCTV cameras. If you see someone doing that, we need to know. Let experiences officers decide what action to take.

While the multiple overlapping law enforcement agencies in DC haven’t gone so far as to advertise, many of their people already consider anyone using a “professional” camera in certain parts of town to be suspect.

In case you’re unaware, a “professional” camera is pretty much any SLR. Or so I’ve been told. Which, I suppose, is different from the completely innocent “tourist” point-and-shoot model.

I’ll be visiting London for a while this summer and will be frequently using my “professional” camera (Canon Rebel XT) during the trip.

I wonder if Scotland Yard will consider me “odd”.