Balancing transparency and the individual right to privacy 

I’ve been thinking about Rufus Pollock’s article ‘The “right to be forgotten” – a threat to Transparency and Open Data?’ for a few days.  I’m a big Rufus fan, so why am I unhappy with this particular blog?

It isn’t so much the over-simplification of a complex issue that bothers me (although I contend that would be a fair assessment).  It is the suggestion that personal privacy – and the implications of a privacy breach – are always of lesser importance than transparency.

Don’t get me wrong: I am an open data enthusiast.  More than that, I believe in the fundamental rightness of open data, even if it is difficult to identify and measure specific benefits in many cases.  Transparency and corporate accountability are worth fighting for.

But the problem with the article is its implicit suggestion (intended or otherwise) that all disclosures can be treated in the same way as soon as the transparency card is played – regardless of the subject matter, the importance of disclosure in terms of public interest, the passage of time or the harm that might be caused.  Transparency holds aces, every time.  The suggestion appears to be that in weighing the case for public disclosure, the recovery of social security debts from Senor González 16 years ago is no different from routine public disclosures (such as finding out the name of an elected representative), information about criminal offenders or the stag night photos that just won’t go away.

Truth is, it just isn’t that simple.  The problem for Mario González was that the information about him would keep turning up again and again in Google searches that may have nothing whatsoever to do with his misdeeds, exposing his 16-year-old information to people who didn’t need it or want it.  That’s what’s different about the Google part of the European Court of Justice ruling.  That’s why we must take a more thoughtful approach to balancing transparency and the individual right to privacy – the right to expect that our private interests will be evaluated and weighed carefully against the public interest, and that the world’s memory of our past deeds will fade in time.

 

Neil Makepeace
Chief Executive Officer