How To Disappear Completely

Europe's Right to Be Forgotten Laws and the Future of Internet Privacy

A view shows an office block at Central St Giles where Google has offices, in London April 23, 2013.  Luke Macgregor / Reuters

Every week, it seems that another company or organization is electronically infiltrated and its customers’ data compromised. In November alone, Comcast, British telecom TalkTalk, and T-Mobile all suffered security breaches that put sensitive information about their clients out in the open. But for all the immediate security concerns these hacks cause, it is the proliferation of sensitive but freely accessible personal information on the Internet—and the inability of many to ever delete or remove it—that can have lifelong repercussions.

The ability to conjure up endless facts and figures with a few keystrokes seems almost magical. But it comes at a price: the seemingly limitless and permanent storage of one’s personal data. Photos of youthful indiscretions and ill-conceived social media posts can follow people around forever. Individuals who witness a heinous crime may be permanently connected to it online. And those who were once cyberbullied may have to stare down the electronic traces of their painful past for the rest of their lives. Erasing one’s past online has been a nearly impossible task.

That is, unless the European Union has its way. In a landmark 2014 ruling, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) upheld the right of individuals to have certain types of information deleted from the Internet. Dubbed the “right to be forgotten,” this decision accentuated key differences in how the EU and the United States view digital privacy and prompted debates about data storage standards across the globe. Already this summer, Russian legislators adopted their own version of institutionalized forgetting, slated to go into effect in January 2016. A number of other countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Japan, and South Korea, are currently considering similar policies.         


At the center of the debate is whether we have the right not only to be seen and heard on the Internet but also to sometimes have our gaffes and missteps erased from it—and what role the state should play in regulating prying electronic eyes. Policymakers in the EU and

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