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Global Affairs Blog

Some Ethical and Practical Concerns Re: “The Right to be Forgotten”

By: Craig Newmark, Founder, craigslist & Craig Newmark Foundation

Okay, this is already a big deal in Europe and I think it’ll emerge as a big deal in the U.S. soon.

The “right to be forgotten” involves new statutes in the EU that allow people to ask internet content providers to remove information that could hurt their reputation.

Overall, I like the internet pioneering approach that the best response to inaccurate or fraudulent speech is more free speech. Brian Stelter recently updated that, suggesting that the best response to sloppy or fake journalism is more and better honest journalism. All of that might happen, maybe starting as I write this, but I’d like to focus on the here and now, so …

Forgetting, in this sense, poses a major problem for any search engine, since any query requires a human to make a judgment call. However, I’m focusing on the values and ethics involved, and would like to simplify the issue by considering two cases:

Let’s suppose the item in question is accurate, but embarrassing or hurtful in some manner. Cases like this are very ad hoc, but I’d urge people to practice shared values, like treating people like you want to be treated, and err on the side of compassion.

On the other hand, let’s suppose the item in question is not accurate, in part or in whole. In situations like that, I feel that the item should be removed.

Three problems with that:

  • some postings are clearly inaccurate, but many exist in a gray area;
  • news outlets are frequently uninterested in updating old articles;
  • removal might cause a “Streisand effect,”bringing attention to and reinforcing the inaccuracy.

This gets more complex when one considers disinformation efforts, both amateur and professional “false flag” operations. For example, that’s where a bad actor posts misleading or way out-of-line items, in the name of an intended victim, to discredit that victim. That’s frequently attempted, on an amateur level, in user-generated content. (I’ve seen a lot of that in twenty years of online customer service, and have been that target of professional “dirty tricks.”) This has criminal implications if posts, or other evidence, are left online to criminally implicate, that is, “frame,” an intended victim. This is a thing now, and it will get worse.

When it comes to articles on news sites, journalism ethics require removal and correction of the piece in a manner that draws no attention to the previous inaccuracy. 

That’s a big challenge for big sites, requiring serious community and civic engagement, like flagging. No good solutions, but I feel there’s a clear imperative to get started.

My perspective is based on both pragmatic experience over twenty years, and what looks like globally shared values and ethics:

  • treat people like you want to be treated;
  • practice mercy and compassion, that is, give everyone a break;
  • seek the truth.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

Craig Newmark is a self-described nerd, web pioneer, speaker, philanthropist, and advocate of technology for the public good. In 2012 he was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame. In 2013 he was named “Nerd-in-Residence” by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Center for Innovation in recognition of his volunteer work with the Department to enhance services to veterans.

Craig is the founder of craigslist, the almost completely free online classified advertising site that has seen more than five billion ads posted. While no longer part of management, Craig continues to work with craigslist as a customer service representative.

Today, Craig’s primary focus is craigconnects, which he launched in March 2011. The mission of craigconnects is to promote civic engagement and philanthropy. He uses the craigconnects platform to support effective organizations working for veterans and military families, trustworthy journalism, voting rights, peer-to-peer giving, women in tech, and other areas. 

Craig serves on the boards of directors of the Poynter Foundation, Center for Public Integrity, Sunlight Foundation, Consumers Union/Consumer Reports, Blue Star Families, VetsInTech, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He also serves on the Board of Overseers of the Columbia Journalism Review and as an adviser to nearly twenty other renowned non-profit organizations (see the full list at craigconnects.org/organizations). 

 

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