EU’s ‘Right to be Forgotten’ Highlights Debate Over Transatlantic Privacy

by Emily Young 

The Internet: most of us can’t imagine a few hours without it, much less a whole day or a week. But with its wide array of possibilities comes serious vulnerability. This is particularly true when it comes to the privacy of our personal data. As anyone who has ever been on the job hunt or a blind date knows, your name, information and history can all be found in seconds with a simple Google search. 

The European Union made a recent decision via the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to increase the protection of personal privacy. The court mandated the “right to be forgotten” online. This decision states an individual has the right to request the removal of any irrelevant or outdated information that currently comes up when a search of their name is conducted.

In the United States, privacy is typically forgone in cases of freedom of speech, security and even commerce. In Europe, however, privacy has a much greater value, and is regarded as a “fundamental human right.” The intrinsic difference in how Americans and Europeans view privacy was highlighted after last summer’s NSA scandal, where Edward Snowden’s leaked surveillance documents left nations of the EU fearful of the US breaching privacy boundaries.

Europeans have been fighting against US practices of utilizing personal information since the 1990s. Over the course of the past few years, several EU member states have fined large tech companies for these privacy violations, pushing the issue back to the supranational agenda. A specific source of tension has been over the common practice of using online history for targeted advertising.

The court's ruling will cause financial and functional complications with American-based companies who, with the US government, have been actively lobbying against this type of Internet-restricting policy. Once this ruling is in effect, search-based firms will have to accept requests to remove information, or submit questionable appeals to the requester’s national government.

This will not be the last we hear of the personal privacy debate in transatlantic relations. In addition to the issue of outdated Internet history, online privacy protection will be a key point of discussion during ongoing negotiations of the US-EU free trade agreement. Moreover, cyber-security concerns continue to be at the forefront of defense policy. International cooperation on these issues hinges on reconciling the appropriate level of privacy protection with security measures between the EU and the US. Unless the two can come to terms with the one another’s privacy preferences, policy collaboration will be minimal. 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

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