Culture vs Technology

Freedom of Speech vs the Right to be Forgotten …. Technology and Society, but whose society?  A recent European Court ruled that Google (also Bing, Yahoo, etc.) might be required to remove links that might be “accurate” but objectionable to the affected individual(s).  It is easy in a world with a dominating culture (U.S.A.) and particularly for technologists working in that culture (Google, et al) to adopt and apply the values of that culture (Free speech) without being aware of alternative cultural norms.

Apparently in Europe, particularly in Germany and France, have some precedents that suggest that prior offences, actions, public knowledge should become unaccessible in the present and future.  This is being considered as part of new E.U. Privacy legislation, and not just a court finding.

It is easy (particularly for those of us in the USA) to hold up the sacred right of free speech (as written in the book of Constitution, verse 1:1) and ignore the concerns, and abuses associated with this.  Some folks on-line are surprised that Facebook (or other) postings of their pictures/activities may result in them being expelled from college, fired, or fail to get a job. This “long tail” left by all of us in the exponentially growing web may contain many issues of concern.  For example, if I mention diabetes in this posting might I lose health insurance? Or if someone with a very similar name is leading a quite different life style, might I suffer some of the consequences?  And of course if I advocate an issue or candidate or religious affiliation could I find that I am persecuted in the media, or worse by police showing up  at my door (consider the recent transitions in Egypt… ops, there I go).

Consider one example, the widespread “sex offender” registration required by many US states.  This has  been a topic of non-academic discussion (Dear Abby) recently but presents an interesting reference. Note that the distinction between an individual found guilty of molesting children many times and a eighteen year old’s indiscretions with a seventeen year old can be indistinguishable in this context.  The public “right to know” would seem to apply in one case, and the chances of recurrence seems unlikely in the other —  yet both may lead to loss of job opportunities, shunning by neighbors, etc.

Facilitating the oppression of religious groups, political dissidents, or even un-informed misuse of the failings of youth seems a good rationale for a “Right to be Forgotten”.  At the same time,  and almost in the same breath, we can hear the need to know a political candidate’s racist remarks, the series of lawsuits brought against a used car dealer (the U.S. stereotype for a shady business),  or perhaps that my fiance has three divorces in the last five years. (This is hypothetical!)  The “Right to be Forgotten” may also be countered with the “Right to Never Be Forgotten”.  The Internet has created a global village — with all of the gossip and “everyone knows” implications of the spotlight of a small town.

This challenge is just beginning.  With face recognition and public web-cams, and many other sources of personal data being captured explicitly or implicitly how we deal with the diversity of cultural norms is non-trivial.

What are the issues you see?

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