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