Will the Right to Be Forgotten Inspire Repressive Regimes to Expand Internet Censorship?

The original version of this post appeared on the IGMENA blog.

The EU’s “right to be forgotten” has left many advocates in the Arab region fearful that governments will exploit the law to further curtail freedom of information and expression on the Internet.

Ben Ali meets with George W. Bush in Washington, DC, 2004. Photo by Paul Morse, released to public domain.

Ben Ali meets with George W. Bush in Washington, DC, 2004. Photo by Paul Morse, released to public domain.

The ruling allows EU citizens to request that search engines de-index links to personal information deemed “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive” so that it does not appear in search results. The court clarified that the right to be forgotten “is not absolute” and a case-by-case assessment is needed to make sure that an individual’s right to be forgotten does not infringe on the public’s right to know. 

But since the ruling, Google reports that it has received over 135,000 requests for removal of links from its search results. In August, the world’s largest search engine announced that it had approved just over 50% of requests received. These included links to legitimate journalistic work and news articles published by the BBC, the Guardian, and the Daily Mail, some of which were reinstated in response to journalists’ objections. The company periodically releases selective data about the process, which can be found here.

What if such a policy were to take hold in the Arab region?
Although its implementation is currently only limited to Europe, the “right to be forgotten” ruling could inspire repressive regimes to expand their Internet filtering practices. “It will be used by other governments that aren’t as forward and progressive as Europe to do bad things,” Google’s CEO Larry Page warned in late May.

In an email interview, Dhouha Ben Youssef, a Tunisian net freedom and privacy advocate wrote that she agreed with Page.

“These governments will take advantage from this directive. Powerful people will be able to hide disgraceful actions for their own e-reputation. For example, politicians could ask for the removal of posts that criticize their policies and power misuse,” Ben Youssef explained. “It will largely impact the investigative journalism emerging in the region.”

There is no reason why Arab governments couldn’t put in place their own “right to be forgotten” model, if they wanted to. All they have to do is draft another repressive law or simply order ISPs to block content violating the controversial principle.

Governments in the region already deploy strict libel laws and broad privacy protections with no legal oversight or appeal mechanisms. These policies systematically deny users access to information and serve to prosecute those who reveal misconduct or wrongdoing by state officials and other powerful actors. Last spring, Social Media Exchange conducted an in-depth study on these types of laws — their work could serve as a roadmap for advocates seeking to preclude lawmaking in this direction.

The UAE's Cybercrime Decree lays the groundwork
In 2012, the UAE passed Federal Legal Decree No. 5/2012 on combating cyber crimes, allegedly to “provide legal protection of privacy of all information published online.”

However, like many other repressive laws approved by Arab regimes over the years, this law is yet another tool to legitimize suppression of online speech and political dissent.

The decree includes an exhaustive list of illegal activities, all criminalized under a mantle of privacy protection. It outlaws:

…using an electronic network or any information technology means for the unwarranted violation of the privacy of others by eavesdropping, intercepting, recording or disclosing conversations, communications, audio and video material; taking photographs of others, creating electronic photos of others, disclosing, copying or saving them; publishing news, electronic photographs or photographs or scenes, comments, data and information even if they are authentic.

The right to be forgotten and the UAE’s decree No. 5/2012 have one dangerous point in common: they both restrict the dissemination of authentic content for the purpose of protecting the privacy rights of others. In the Arab region the aim appears to be to conceal evidence of misconduct by politicians and public officials. While in the EU the right to be forgotten is supposedly aimed at protecting private individuals, the fact that former EU politicians are entitled to exercise the right to be forgotten is troubling. 

The Internet and the world should not forget the disgraceful acts and corruption of politicians once they leave office. We have all seen how public officials are tempted again by power shortly after they leave office. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy recently announced his political comeback despite corruption allegations against him. In Tunisia, where I work as a freelance journalist, officials who served under the former autocratic and corrupt rule of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali are making a comeback to the political scene and running for legislative and presidential elections. 

One might argue that Internet filtering is already rampant in the region and that the EU’s right to be forgotten ruling is not going to improve or worsen the situation. This is true to some extent, but the level of Internet filtering practices differ from one country to another. While some governments practice extensive Internet filtering, others are keeping it at minimum levels.

In Tunisia, for example, the Internet has remained open and relatively uncensored since the ousting of Ben Ali. Yet a number of government officials still advocate for the reinstatement of filtering practices to combat “defamation” and “terrorism.” Soon, they may begin to call for the filtering of the Internet to protect the right to be forgotten of others, arguing that even “democratic” Europe enshrines this right. 

Dictators have plenty to learn from undemocratic practices of “Western democracies”
“For Reporters Without Borders (RWB), if they show me how France monitors the cyberspace, we will commit ourselves to do better.” Such was the response of former ICTs minister Mongi Marzouk, when RWB criticized the Tunisian government for setting up the controversial Technical Telecommunications Agency, tasked with investigating “ICT crimes.”

“This law took as reference the Budapest Convention [on Cybercrime],” Marzouk said in defence of the decree establishing the agency. Although the Budapest Convention marked a significant step forward in building international legal standards for cybercrime, it is far from perfect — many advocates believe the Convention lacks sufficient protections for non-malicious use of certain technologies.

Arab government officials do not hesitate to claim that their practices or laws are as democratic as those of Europe, even when they are not. They also learn from the undemocratic practices of “Western democracies.” Just as the NSA’s mass spying practices can aid dictatorships, so can the right to be forgotten. 

EU legislators need to keep in mind that each law they draft could either inspire pro-democracy reformers in lesser democratic countries or incite dictators to “do bad things.” It is up to them to choose a side.

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