People are set to forget. German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus’ (1850-1909) famous research shows that we start to forget 10 minutes after the study, losing 50 percent after an hour, 70 percent after one day, and 80 percent after one month. This human forgetfulness is sometimes a blessing. During his lecture trip to Korea in 2013, Eran Katz, an Israeli record holder for “memory” in the Guinness Book of World Records, praised “forgetting” as good for a healthy mind by releasing one’s brain space to store new necessary information.
In fact, forgetting is how we overcome our failures, reset our minds and reformat our lives. This natural medicine of healing and emotional well-being now has limited effect. All pieces of information are now scattered to the farthest corners of the Internet and etched in the hard drives of the search engines. With a search click, the information pops up on the screen.
Attending academic conferences these days, I am surprised by the level of detail in the information organizers or fellow participants have collected about me. It has now become simply a matter of time to compile a dossier on a person through a quick search using search engines. Come to think of it, requests for submissions of my resume have become relatively rare these days: Perhaps they don’t have to as everything is on the Internet. Then I realize that some information on the net fails to provide a full picture of an event or an issue surrounding me ― sometimes it is taken out of context or includes mis-summarized or outdated information.
Some people just can’t bear the discrepancy, and the question then is whether they can force the search engines to change or delete certain search results. This question underpins the May 13 decision from the European Court of Justice, the EU’s highest court, wherein the “right to be forgotten” has been examined and ultimately recognized. This dispute was brought by a Spanish national in 2010 who did not like the Google search outcome which showed outdated information on a property attachment proceeding involving him. Since the decision was rendered, individual requests for deletion of information from search results have been flooding the Google website.
The same rationale would force newspapers to redact or black out certain information contained in old newspapers if a person registered a protest citing changed circumstances. But is it something achievable? The ECJ decision tried to distinguish search engines from newspapers in that the former undertake “processing” of information at the request of a searcher.
Contrary to the wide media coverage around the world as a decision championing the “right to be forgotten,” this decision is actually specific and limited in scope. Obviously, it is only confined to EU countries, so unpleasant information can still remain over the net somewhere else which may be accessible by re-routing.
The rule also does not apply to a person living a “public life” or a situation warranting “public interest.” So, every decision will be individual and case-specific. In any event, this latest decision signals that the individuals’ right-to-be-forgotten and the society’s right-to-know will continue to clash in the digital age.
To some extent, our societal system has evolved based on the notion that something (though with some exceptions) will be and should preferably be forgotten at some point in time and everybody has the ability to start anew. Consider some financial regulations, juvenile criminal law or statutes of limitation. The advent of the digital age is now changing this conventional notion as well.
Korea is one of the most wired and SNS-saturated societies in the world. Even at restaurants, young people go through the ritual of taking pictures and posting them on their SNS accounts before starting to eat. In this post-everything, regret-later society, perhaps the new digital conflict will become more acute. Time to stay tuned to a public hearing of the Korea Communications Commission on June 16 on this very issue.
By Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is an associate professor of law at Seoul National University. ― Ed.