The “right to be forgotten” bill should be forgotten

Intellectual property lawyer/drummer Paul Rapp noted that a “right to be forgotten” bill has been introduced in the New York legislature. “These laws are based on some supposed ‘human right’ that… says you’re entitled to have embarrassing things in your past ‘forgotten’ on the internet.”

From New York Assembly Bill 5323, introduced by Assemblyman David I. Weprin and, as Senate Bill 4561 by state Senator Tony Avella: “Requires search engines, indexers, publishers and any other persons or entities which make available, on or through the internet or other widely used computer-based network, program or service, information about an individual to remove such information, upon the request of the individual, within thirty days of such request.”

The Washington Post writes:

So, under this bill, newspapers, scholarly works, copies of books on Google Books and Amazon, online encyclopedias (Wikipedia and others) — all would have to be censored whenever a judge and jury found (or the author expected them to find) that the speech was “no longer material to current public debate or discourse” (except when it was “related to convicted felonies” or “legal matters relating to violence” in which the subject played a “central and substantial” role). And of course the bill contains no exception even for material of genuine historical interest; after all, such speech would have to be removed if it was “no longer material to current public debate.” Nor is there an exception for autobiographic material, whether in a book, on a blog or anywhere else. Nor is there an exception for political figures, prominent businesspeople and others.

But the deeper problem with the bill is simply that it aims to censor what people say, under a broad, vague test based on what the government thinks the public should or shouldn’t be discussing. It is clearly unconstitutional under current First Amendment law, and I hope First Amendment law will stay that way (no matter what rules other countries might have adopted).

The website Reason received this blistering analysis from First Amendment attorney Ken White of Brown, White & Osborn (and also of Popehat fame):

This bill is a constitutional and policy disaster that shows no sign that the drafters made any attempt whatsoever to conform to the requirements of the constitution. It purports to punish both speakers and search engines for publishing—or indexing—truthful information protected by the First Amendment. There’s no First Amendment exception for speech deemed “irrelevant” or “inadequate” or “excessive,” and the rules for punishing “inaccurate” speech are already well-established and not followed by this bill. The bill is hopelessly vague, requiring speakers to guess at what some fact-finder will decide is “irrelevant” or “no longer material to current public debate,” or how a fact-finder will balance (in defiance of the First Amendment) the harm of the speech and its relevance. The exceptions are haphazard and poorly defined, and the role of the New York Secretary of State in administering the law is unclear. This would be a bonanza for anyone who wanted to harass reporters, bloggers, search engines, and web sites to take down negative information, and would incentivize such harassment and inflict massive legal costs on anyone who wanted to stand up to a vexatious litigant.

Conversely, the Association for Accountability and Internet Democracy (AAID) supports the bill, saying that “that the Right to Be Forgotten has allowed thousands of victims throughout the European Union to reclaim their dignity and their right to live a normal life unaffected by online exclusion from society.”

I remain unconvinced that the possible value of this legislation outweighs the onerous burden of removing true but supposedly “irrelevant” speech, and as a librarian, I actively oppose this bill.

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