Strad­dling the line be­tween the right to be for­got­ten and the right to know

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I’ve had a ring­side seat for more than a decade in the evo­lu­tion of main­stream me­dia through mas­sive tech­no­log­i­cal, so­cial and po­lit­i­cal changes. It’s been a rocky ride for most, but when I look back on the jour­ney, I have to say that one of the most chal­leng­ing ar­eas in which I’ve been in­volved was the bal­ance be­tween the right to pri­vacy ver­sus so­ci­ety’s “need to know” through free­dom of the press.

Journalism is a fun­da­men­tal part of our demo­cratic process and its role in so­ci­ety is crit­i­cal to good gov­er­nance, our global aware­ness of the truth, ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion, our safety and our hu­man rights.

This hasn’t changed in quite some time, but what con­tin­ues to be chal­lenged is our right to pri­vacy in the dig­i­tal age. This has led to a mas­sive growth in take­down re­quests in pub­li­ca­tions (es­pe­cially news­pa­pers) and rul­ing of the Right to be For­got­ten leg­is­la­tion in Europe and some na­tional lev­els as well.

Few would ar­gue that the laws gov­ern­ing a per­son’s right to con­fi­den­tial­ity need to be re­formed based on the om­nipresent na­ture of the in­ter­net.

Not in the least this ap­plies to in­di­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tions such as

let­ters to the ed­i­tor where peo­ple ex­pect some level of dis­clo­sure con­trol. Years ago, when peo­ple sub­mit­ted these let­ters to their lo­cal pa­per of, say, 3,000 read­ers (i.e. their ad­dress­able au­di­ence), they did not an­tic­i­pate that their let­ter would be made avail­able to the global masses.

I’ve been think­ing about this is­sue a lot in the past year and won­der­ing how to bal­ance the right to be for­got­ten with so­ci­ety’s right/need to know. For ex­am­ple, if some­one shares an opin­ion that is not li­belous, defam­a­tory or oth­er­wise il­le­gal, shouldn’t they have the right to take it back at some point in the fu­ture? Un­for­tu­nately, once the opin­ion has been pub­lished, un­less they have specif­i­cally asked for the ex­punge­ment of that con­tent from the pub­lisher, they have no way to re­scind or change what they orig­i­nally said.

High pro­file per­son­al­i­ties have a bet­ter chance of re­tract­ing com­ments and is­su­ing new ones by the na­ture of their re­la­tion­ship with me­dia, but an av­er­age cit­i­zen does not have the op­por­tu­nity to mod­ify, clar­ify or, in­deed, jus­tify what they said once it’s pub­lished. And let’s not for­get that opin­ions can and do of­ten change, but the mech­a­nisms to ex­punge the old and re­place with the new aren’t read­ily avail­able to the masses.

Busi­nesses, gov­ern­ments and oth­ers have dis­cov­ered that this free­dom of in­for­ma­tion makes screen­ing of can­di­dates, track­ing of em­ploy­ees and re­search­ing of clients al­most ef­fort­less. It’s no won­der that 60% of em­ploy­ers use me­dia and so­cial net­works like Face­book and Twit­ter to re­search job ap­pli­cants (ir­re­spec­tive of how le­gal it is).

Just twenty years ago, this wasn’t even an is­sue, but in our glob­al­ly­con­nected so­ci­ety should our right to ex­press our opin­ions in a mo­ment of pas­sion or anger come with a le­niency pe­riod in which we can re­cant what we pre­vi­ously said, restor­ing our rep­u­ta­tion?

It’s a com­pli­cated is­sue, of that there is no doubt. The num­ber of re­moval re­quests we re­ceive at PressReader is in­creas­ing al­most on a daily ba­sis, as is the work­flow as­so­ci­ated with do­ing the re­search and con­firm­ing that the re­moval is valid and in line with the pub­lisher’s wishes (ed­i­to­rial poli­cies and in­dus­try codes of con­duct) or le­git­i­mate do­mes­tic leg­is­la­tion, such as a pub­lish­ing ban on spe­cific court cases to pro­tect vic­tims and wit­nesses.

But the right to be for­got­ten is not univer­sal when it per­tains to those who break the law. Over the past 18 months my side­line view of the work­ings of me­dia and its role in so­ci­ety moved from be­ing a spec­ta­tor to be­com­ing a par­tic­i­pant in a bat­tle be­tween a con­victed crim­i­nal, news­pa­per pub­lish­ers and their au­di­ences on PressReader. With­out nam­ing names, let me share what hap­pened…

In 2015, a per­son found guilty on mul­ti­ple counts of fraud sev­eral years ago, dis­cov­ered a num­ber of ar­ti­cles in main­stream me­dia that re­ported on their charges, trial, con­vic­tion and sen­tenc­ing. They im­me­di­ately re­quested that they be re­moved from the site. As per our pol­icy, we in­ves­ti­gated and found that none of the ar­ti­cles mis­rep­re­sented the facts – facts

“Jour­nal­ists are the watch­dogs of democ­racy and the mo­ment we let oth­ers dic­tate what can and can­not be re­ported is the mo­ment we fail in our duty to so­ci­ety.”

that were not only avail­able in news­pa­pers but in all the court records which are pub­li­cally avail­able on­line.

When the ar­ti­cles in ques­tion were not re­moved for le­git­i­mate rea­sons, the per­son tried to bribe our sup­port staff. When that didn’t work, they started send­ing ul­ti­ma­tums threat­en­ing to “mess” with our web­site, which they at­tempted through many Distributed De­nial of Ser­vice (DDoS) at­tacks. When this started to hap­pen the po­lice were brought in and have con­tin­ued to try and track down and ar­rest the of­fender. Fur­ther at­tacks con­tin­ued to be mit­i­gated through PressReader’s se­cu­rity mea­sures.

Soon af­ter that, per­sonal threats be­gan which in­cluded acts of ex­tor­tion and numer­ous threats (in­clud­ing death) to staff, mem­bers of their fam­i­lies and friends.

To­day, the bully has yet to be ap­pre­hended and con­tin­ues to threaten and ha­rass us, our pub­lish­ers and some of their ad­ver­tis­ers. It would be easy to do what the cul­prit de­mands, but if we do suc­cumb, what does that say about our role, and that of our pub­lish­ers, in democ­racy and the free­dom of the press?

We can’t let bul­lies, whether they be crim­i­nals, lob­by­ists or politi­cians, con­trol the Fourth Es­tate. The mo­ment we do, we start down a slip­pery slope to­wards me­dia cor­rup­tion that can­not be re­versed. We who are in the busi­ness of journalism and the dis­tri­bu­tion of it have a moral and le­gal obli­ga­tion to never com­pro­mise on the truth. A sin of omis­sion in me­dia is as dan­ger­ous as one of com­mis­sion.

Many brave re­porters have been im­pris­oned for the work they do in sup­port of their mis­sion; oth­ers have been jailed for not di­vulging a source. Jour­nal­ists are the watch­dogs of democ­racy and the mo­ment we let oth­ers dic­tate what can and can­not be re­ported is the mo­ment we fail in our duty to so­ci­ety.

Ad­ver­tis­ers do not nec­es­sar­ily share this mis­sion and so nat­u­rally, they just want it fixed. But we are hold­ers of the truth and we can’t let our­selves be bul­lied by crim­i­nals or para­noid politi­cians who cry foul over me­dia bias and at­tack those who don’t kow­tow to their de­mands.

I ask all of you to join with us at PressReader to hold up sup­port for law abid­ing cit­i­zens’ right to be for­got­ten while tak­ing a firm stand against cor­rup­tion in me­dia and pro­tect those jour­nal­ists that re­port on il­le­gal and un­eth­i­cal prac­tices by per­se­cu­tors. Let’s talk!

“We can’t let bul­lies, whether they be crim­i­nals, lob­by­ists or politi­cians, con­trol the Fourth Es­tate. The mo­ment we do, we start down a slip­pery slope to­wards me­dia cor­rup­tion that can­not be re­versed. We who are in the busi­ness of journalism and the dis­tri­bu­tion of it have a moral and le­gal obli­ga­tion to never com­pro­mise on the truth. A sin of omis­sion in me­dia is as dan­ger­ous as one of com­mis­sion.”

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