Forget me now

Tags: Knowledge

As per a ruling of the European Court of Justice, search engines and data controllers will have to stop returning links to information deemed harmful by users

Forget me now
The months of May and June have been eventful for electronic privacy advocates. After the European Supreme Court ruled in favour of the people’s right to be forgotten, Facebook announced yet more changes to its rules regarding collecting data.

Facebook announced that it was now going to track users’ internet activity as they surfed the web and not just facebook using any internet-enabled device. The service will enable Facebook to better target ads to its consumers by giving it access to a much larger amount of data to analyse and predict user behaviour. Facebook will access passive data, that is, data gleaned from behaviour. This is in marked contrast to earlier efforts at targeting ads based on data shared “actively” by users — by means of their likes or interests.

These latest changes to its privacy norms, predictably, have led to a fair bit of criticism from privacy activists. Most of it centres around the fact that Facebook assumes that the users agree to these changes and want to be tracked. All Facebook users are automatically ‘opted-in’, and must specifically opt out. Research shows that less than 2 per cent of users actually exercise the option of opting out.

Adding fuel to this fire is the varying degrees to which the ‘do not track’ feature is implemented by internet companies. Google and Yahoo services, for instance, do not alter their behaviour even if users have turned on the ‘do not track’ feature.

Perhaps to pacify these concerns, Facebook will now show interested users glimpses of the data it collects on them. If, for instance, you were shown a television ad on your timeline, you could now see why that ad was shown to them — based on their recent search activity or based on their preferences.

While this tug of war gets played out in the US, Europe has gone ahead and given the internet a finite memory. Popular perception is that the internet has an infinite memory. An embarrassing photo or an inadvertent tweet will remain forever etched in ‘the cloud’. This could have repercussions for individuals whose future may be affected adversely by these incidents of the past.

The “right to be forgotten” is now being implemented in the European Union. As per a ruling of the European Court of Justice, search engines and other internet companies deemed data controllers will have to stop returning links to information considered outdated or deemed harmful by users. Users can submit requests to search engines who will then prevent these links from being shown.

While the right to be forgotten might be deemed a god-send by adults whose embarrassing photos have found their way online, legal experts and other prominent individuals have called them the greatest threat to free speech. While the need to erase photos and other material deemed embarrassing to teens is well understood, the right to be forgotten takes an odd turn when presented with situations where it has been used.

The most often cited case is that of two people who murdered a famous individual. They were caught and sentenced to a prison term. After serving their time, they found that their names still appeared on Wikipedia articles about their victim. The individuals went to court and argued that they had served time in jail, repaid their debt to society and wanted their names to be expunged online. The courts, remarkably, agreed and their names were taken down from all Wikipedia articles mentioning them. You can see how this can be used to censor information about officials holding public office.

While some sort of a middle ground will be found, what is missing are efforts by the government of India to also introduce legislation or guidelines that govern tracking of user behaviour and collection of data. It is as important as protection of data collected during a census or during registration of voters. With the growing relevance of the internet and huge increases in the number of connected individuals, online protection and privacy affects us all.

(The writer is chief technology officer at EnglishHelper Education Technologies)

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