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Europe's 'Right to Be Forgotten' Should Terrify U.S. Tech Companies

Jim Carrey's "Joel" erasing his memories in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004

Photograph by Focus Features/Everett Collection

Jim Carrey's "Joel" erasing his memories in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004

There’s a saying that the Internet never forgets. But if lawmakers in Europe have their way, we could soon be entering a newfangled age of selective, Internet amnesia. Unless, that is, the tech lobbyists can stop them.

On Wednesday, the European Parliament passed a new set of online privacy measures that include a so-called right to be forgotten, which would grant consumers the right to request that selective data be deleted—and force companies to comply with such demands if they have no legitimate grounds for retaining the data.

It’s an idea that has recently gained momentum around the world, as consumers grow increasingly wary about the degree to which their every move, click, thought, photo, or tossed-off utterance on social media is recorded, replicated, and stored by various data companies and marketers for all eternity. Such permanence, some scholars believe, can be paralyzing for individuals and societies, trapping them in the past and discouraging individuals from taking on new risks and challenges. What would benefit consumers, privacy advocates have argued, is the legal right to expunge some of their digital footprints.

Some tech executives and legal scholars, however, argue that the right to be forgotten—as conceived in Europe, for instance—would cause more unintended problems than it would solve. Such measures, they insist, would likely transform open platforms such as Facebook (FB) and Google (GOOG) into global censors, responsible for adjudicating among endless requests to edit, alter, or delete our culture’s collective digital record.

What that might look like in practice is difficult to say. But many in the technology and communications industry say it would be bad for business. Regulators should step back, they suggest, and let the free market do its thing. After all, a number of new services, such as Snapchat and its self-destructing messages, already have exploded in popularity in recent years by specifically catering to users’ desire for less permanent forms of social communication.

In the meantime, while Europe’s right-to-be-forgotten measure is one step closer to becoming law, it’s not a done deal yet. As the the Wall Street Journal points out, the controversial data protection measures—the subject of much contention and revision within the European Parliament—still need to win the approval of the EU’s 28 member governments.

Whether or not the measures pass remains “highly uncertain,” according to the New York Times. In part, that’s because the current parliament will disband for elections in May, possibly further delaying the fate of the data restrictions. Still, considering the seemingly ever-escalating concerns about online privacy around the planet, it seems unlikely that consumer advocates will soon forget about the right to be forgotten.

Gillette is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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