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Resolved: The “right to be forgotten” from Internet searches ought to be a civil right.
This will be a difficult topic for students to wrestle with. The literature is fairly limited because the issue is a more recent one. This topic will require creativity and clever application of philosophical traditions. There’s a lot of room for interpretation, and because reality hasn’t afforded us a clear definition of what some of these things mean, there’s also a lot of room for abusive and wonky positions.
In any case, let’s dive in!
Right to be Forgotten from Internet searches – The right to be forgotten, simply understood, is the right to have personal data about yourself removed from the internet. For example, let’s say a teenager posts an inappropriate picture on Facebook that they later regret. That picture is then spread around by his/her friends. The right to be forgotten says that the person can file a request to Facebook to remove any trace of that picture, and they must take all reasonable efforts to do just that. Similarly, personal data which can be found on Google is also subject to the same right. The key here is that the resolution does not specify where this data had to have originated, and that specification is also not available in the real world just yet. Does a corrupt politician have the right to request details of his shenanigans be removed from the interwebs? That is the type of question debaters must tackle when dealing with this topic.
Civil Right – A civil right is a right afforded to a person by society or a social contract. As compared to natural rights like life and liberty, these rights are not granted simply by virtue of a person being a person, but rather, they are rights afforded in the context of an organized system, like the right to vote. The purpose of this designation in the resolution is that it’s much more difficult to argue that the right to be forgotten is a natural right. How does internet anonymity follow from one being human? Therefore, the resolution is asking us to focus on whether or not this should be a civil right, specifically.
Ought – Ought means should. Like most resolutions with this word, it is will be the crux of any argument. The debater must first establish how we determine what things are civil rights, and then use that system of determination to explain why, or why not, the right to be forgotten ought to be a civil right.
1. Rights as Claims – Rights function as claims on others. That is to say, for every right I have, somebody else has a corresponding obligation. In this case, the claim on another is the inhibition of free speech. Affording the right to be forgotten to people places an obligation on others not to share information that is available in the public domain. This is particularly important in the case of indicting information for public figures. The right to be forgotten limits free speech unfairly, and therefore, ought not to be a civil right.
2. Impossibility of Enforcement – We cannot say something which is not possible ought to be. Enforcing the right to be forgotten is an impossible task and places an impossible burden on data vendors. The internet is a difficult place to police. Google doesn’t control everything that can be found with Google. Facebook doesn’t control everything that can be found on Facebook. The afford people this civil right is to send moral agents into a realm of impossible burdens, and therefore, this cannot be a civil right.
3. Rights as Protections – Civil rights function as protections of other rights. My right to vote functions as a protection for my liberty. The right to be forgotten is not a protection of anything. It doesn’t protect privacy, since this information is in the public domain anyway. It doesn’t protect security, or speech, or any other right. Because it doesn’t serve as a protection, it cannot actually be a right.
1. Property Rights – Personal data and information is property. Allowing another person, or persons, to see your property does not give them the right to use it as they please. For example, if I show somebody my house, that doesn’t mean they can move in and start living there. If they do, I have a right to ask them to leave, and they are required to do so. Similarly, if I post a picture (my property), it does not give others the right to use that picture as they choose. If that ends up happening, the I have the right to request that those uses be stopped.
2. Coherence Theory – Coherence dictates that new moral principles should cohere with already established moral rules. By the way, rights are moral rules. We already have an established moral culture of privacy. Despite the interests of other parties, we have never willingly condoned people not having control over information pertinent to them. In order to continue that, a right to be forgotten is necessary. People should be able to control their public image, so long as removing the information comes with good reason like its inaccuracy.
3. Truth – Truth is the most important thing. We must work to paint a picture of the world as it actually exists now, and this includes accurate representations of a person’s public image. Mistakes cannot be forever, because if they are, then we violate our obligation to the truth. A mistake make years and years ago should not color one’s perception about the truth of a person as they are now. Therefore, we ought to afford people the right to be forgotten in order to protect this commitment.