If the Privacy Commissioner likes it, it must be bad

This sounds like a classic non-starter: Hong Kong’s Privacy Commissioner wants to lobby Google (via his regional counterparts) to implement a ‘right to be forgotten’. This is stupid on so many levels. But, at the same time, there is a sort-of case for the much-mocked European concept and, in a devil’s advocate way, we should consider it.

One obvious way in which the ‘right to be forgotten’  is wrong is that it infringes both freedom of expression and freedom of information: ‘marching into a library and forcing it to pulp books’. Another is that it won’t work in practice as it would only apply to Google in some countries but not others. (It affects all search engines – even Bing, which ironically is so obscure and little-used it surely needs a right to be remembered.) And what’s the betting some geeks will produce an ap or site that specializes in tracking/highlighting/archiving all the data that gets de-indexed?

Where Hong Kong is concerned, this looks like a clear case of empire-building by the local privacy bureaucracy. The Privacy Commissioner has a record of this. There was the idiotic attempt to let company directors keep their addresses and ID numbers out of public records. And there was the equally ridiculous derailing of the Do No Evil ap, which simply collated existing public information. Both this case and the removal of David Webb’s on-line list of (publicly available) tycoons’ ID card numbers suggest that Privacy Commissioner Allan Chiang will use forceful measures like threats of costly legal action to stop people legally reusing public information – presumably because it makes him feel important and he gets a kick out of it. Anything this guy wants must be wrong on principle.

All in all, the right to be forgotten sounds like some trendy, namby-pamby bit of claptrap from France/United Nations/NGO-land, like children’s right to play. However, just as some people might point to mental health problems in Hong Kong toddlers cramming for kindergarten entrance exams and say kid’s play is no laughing matter, we should recognize that there is a case for allowing people to bury parts of their past.

This is why we have rehabilitation of offenders laws and the idea of spent convictions, which give ex-convicts the right for their (typically non-violent/non-sexual) convictions to be forgotten. Reformed criminals’ pasts are not airbrushed from the public record, but they are in practice harder to discover. The community decides that this approach is compassionate and fair and delivers social and economic benefits by absorbing ex-cons back into the work force, reducing reoffending, etc.

Or at least that was the case until the Internet and Google (and scanning of public records) came along. For centuries, people have had a de-facto right to leave embarrassing details behind. The court cases, drug busts, bankruptcies and other humiliations were always there – in back-copies of local newspapers gathering dust in bound volumes in a public library, or hidden away in a microscopic dot on one of a thousand reels of microfiche in an archive. But, even if they were indexed (which most weren’t), no-one could push a button and pull them up in a second.

So something of real significance to at least some people – many of them innocent, decent, deserving of letting bygones be bygones – has changed quite suddenly thanks to new technology. A generations-old ability of people to leave things behind has suddenly been stripped away. To some individuals, obscurity and confidence have given way to conspicuousness and fear. We can justifiably ask whether that would ideally be reversed.

In practice, it can’t or won’t be. And Privacy Commissioner Allan Chiang’s position suddenly outweighs my sympathy for today’s honest and productive people of social standing who happen to have a long-passed youthful wrongdoing that is now just waiting (there but for the grace of God) to pop up as a search engine result. They can change their name, or join the French Foreign Legion.

This just in: Asia Sentinel joins the ranks of bystanders and observers finding the South China Morning Post’s newly energized pushing of the Chinese Communist Party line and pro-Hong Kong government spin laborious, not to say pitiful. SCMP staffers looking ahead to careers elsewhere might find a ‘right to be forgotten’ useful for their resumes.


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