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Roll up for digital whack-a-mole: Europe can’t enforce the right to be forgotten

In a digitally connected world, it is becoming almost impossible to remove your digital footprint. The fact that the European Court of Justice has ruled that internet search providers such as Google have…

Those bad memories will keep popping up. Katrina, CC BY-NC-SA

In a digitally connected world, it is becoming almost impossible to remove your digital footprint. The fact that the European Court of Justice has ruled that internet search providers such as Google have to remove content about you if you tell them to does not mean that it will actually happen in practice.

The technological reality is more complex and is likely to mean that this legislation will be ineffective. Implementing the right to be forgotten would be like a Europe-wide, 24/7 game of digital whack-a-mole that never ends.

The internet has a long memory

Once data is committed to a web page, social media site or some other internet enabled service and made public, the chances are it will remain visible, maybe forever.

All search engines run using autonomous programs called bots. Their sole task is to collect data from all systems connected to the world wide web. They feed back that information and your search engine displays it as results. That’s how something you post on Facebook or Twitter can eventually be found using a search engine.

Added to that are all the sites out there that duplicate information. A good example is sites like paper.li that automatically generate content based on an individuals own rules.

This makes it impossible to completely hide all updates, be they good or bad news.

To see this in action, it is worth setting up your own Google Alert. This sends you an email every time a certain term crops up in a new item on the web. It is impressive how quickly new entries pop up out of nowhere. Just like those pesky moles.

Another popular tool is the Internet Archive, commonly known as the way back machine. This site allows you to type in a URL and revisit past iterations of your favourite website. It is worth visiting, you can see how the Open University first appeared on the world wide web in 1997, for example.

Every time the way back machine captures a data snapshot from a given internet data source, it is there forever.

For the everyday internet user, it is likely that removing a search engine reference will initially stop you from seeing facts that others would like hidden. But not seeing them doesn’t mean they are not there. Search engines like Google, are only indexing services for the entire world wide web. They do not contain the content. Only references to where the content may be found.

Imagine that I visit your home and grab all the books off the bookshelf. Instead of ripping out the pages that I do not like, I rip out the contents pages and the indexes. It has made it harder for you to find the facts contained in each of your books but the facts are still in the books. The EU ruling is the digital equivalent.

Google and others will not be able to list the content when it is searched for but it is likely to still be floating around on a website somewhere.

Technologically, there is little that can be accomplished by this ruling. The dark web, virtual private networks and cloud storage make it all a lot harder. And even if the European Court of Justice successfully implements these new rules within its legislative boundaries, it can’t extend its reach any further.

As everyone knows, the internet is a worldwide phenomenon. I could easily move my search engine outside the EU’s domain and continue to display the content that has been blocked in the EU. This is how pirate sites continue to enable access to illegal material. Users would still able to find and record references to everything currently available on the world wide web. Every time you whack the mole, it just pops up somewhere else.

In a similar move, the UK is attempting to licence pornographic sites. This is another case of legislative intention failing to take account of human nature as well as how technology actually works.

I personally believe that this ruling will encourage cyber-anarchists to ensure that there is always a copy of all information stored on the internet. That is if they are not already doing just that.