Net Effect: European governments clash with Facebook privacy outlook


I doubt that Mark Zuckerberg’s recent pronouncement that the age of privacy is over will win his company many friends among European governments and lawmakers. France, imagefor once, is already working on a time machine, so that it could go back to that wonderful time when everyone used Minitel and privacy was as ubiquitous as malware.

According to BBC, the French are debating a new law that would give Internet users the option to have old online data about themselves deleted. Remember those embarrassing photos you shared with all your Facebook friends when you were college? Under the new law, you would finally be able to have some of your dignity back.

The article is scarce on details about how this law would be implemented. It appears that the companies storing such data (eg, Facebook or MySpace) would be required to delete such data after a certain period of time set by law (it would still be up to the user to decide whether to keep or delete such data though). This approach has a lot in common with the suggestions that Victor Mayer-Schoenberger made in Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, where he argued that users should be able to set expiration dates on their data (or data that somehow can compromise them - like photos from a party) and adjust them accordingly, should they want to keep the files for longer than originally envisioned.

In his book, Mayer-Schoenberger concedes that this idea is still extremely hard to implement without reinventing how we currently produce and share data, for expiration dates could only be effective if all copies of a given file can also be destroyed. That we’ll arrive at such technology anytime soon does not seem likely to me: the age of privacy may not be over, but the age of piracy is not. If the recent trends are anything to go by, we are not likely to leave piracy (made possible by cheap and easy copy-making) behind us anyt time soon.

So what else could we do, given that expiration-date-technology capable of destroying all copies is not an option? This is an easy one: make offensive information harder to find. After all, it’s the fact that our data is findable - most commonly through search engines - that makes us really concerned.

It’s likely that one of the indirect consequences of such law would be a bailout of the Search Engine Optimisation industry, especially the sectors dealing with personal reputation. Found something about yourself that you do not like? Well, you can hire the services of such companies and they’ll make sure that this information is demoted to the very last search page.

This is already possible now as a commercial service, but if the government and the lawmakers given their blessing to such practices and subsidise them, we may be soon be having a completely different Internet. It’s quite telling that two of such companies are quoted in the BBC piece. They are the ones who’ll really profit from such concerns over the right to forget; the website of one of them - a company called Reputation Squad - is worth checking out in detail.

Europe seems to be getting serious about Internet regulation, for better or worse. France, for example, is also working on another initiative aimed at restraining the Internet giants - a so-called “Google tax”. The German minister of justice recently lashed out at Google, suggesting the company rethinks its approach to data protection - or the German lawmakers would need to step in. It’s too bad that the US - a country that has most influence on the Internet companies - is lagging behind. The age of privacy may be over but the governments shouldn’t accept their defeat without a good fight.

** This article was originally published in Foreign Policy’s Net Effects blog.

Flickr images from users Bryan Peters