The Flip Side of The Right to Be Forgotten

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Our brains are wired to forget. The internet, not so much. That mismatch is a risk to our humanity. 

Now that the the European Court has ruled that there is a so-called 'right to be forgotten' online, Google must consider requests to remove some search results in the name of privacy. American commentators went nuts over this. Free speech would be lost, went the outcry. A right to know would be buried, echoed the refrain. But maybe Americans are seeing it wrong.

This week New Tech City hears from a man with a heart-wrenching plea for Google to forget one macabre photo, from a German lawyer inundated with new clients trying to jump on the forgetting bandwagon, and we talk to the philosopher Viktor Mayer-Schönberger who wrote the book that started the whole conversation about who should own your online identity and search results. 

Forgetting, he says, "enables us human beings to evolve, to learn, to move forward, and if we undo that capacity to forget because our digital tools remember, then we are undoing a very important element of what makes us human." 

We get thoughtful, personal, and a little European in this episode. Click play above to listen. 

For more stories like this one, subscribe to our podcast via iTunes or RSS. And follow us on Twitter, won't you? 


    Music Playlist
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    Artist: Bijou Basil
  2. Rain
    Artist: Kenneth J Brahmstedt
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    Artist: Kenneth J Brahmstedt
  4. Quiet Smile
    Artist: Cullen Fitzpatrick, ASCAP
  5. Growing Pains
    Artist: Chester Yourczek
  6. Watch Your Head
    Artist: Kenneth J Brahmstedt


Robert Barefield, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Christian Solmecke

Hosted by:

Manoush Zomorodi

Produced by:

Tyler Adams

Comments [5]

BrianK from Hong Kong

I recall the recent Last Week Tonight episode where John Oliver recommended everyone upload their most horrendous, embarrassing photo in order to level the playing field. The point: everyone in 20 years is going to have something awful or embarrassing available online . . . including your hiring manager. So is this a short-term issue or the beginning of what will become a permanent feature? In any case, curating your online presence should be a topic taught in grade school. To paraphrase Shakespeare, "Be careful what you put on that Facebook page of yours Henry, for you will never, ever get it out again."

On a related note, with the growing frequency of "Corporations are people, too!" decisions coming out of the US Supreme Court, how long before some manufacturer files for their firm's 'Net record to be expunged of environmental violations or OSHA audit findings on the basis it is causing them anguish? "I was a sloppy teenager!" pleads the DumpStuffInYourRiver Company. "I'm a grown-up company now--don't I deserve your compassion and forgetfulness as well?" Hmmmm--not so much.

And don't you as a consumer want to know that BigPill Inc. was cited for stuffing their supplements with sawdust a few years back, not once but on several occasions? "But our current quality assurance and inspection processes are so much better now!" cries BigPill. "If people read about these earlier issues, they might not want to buy my sawdus . . . I mean, my top-quality supplements today!"

Corporate accountability and transparency are difficult enough as it is under current regulations. If you provide firms a wedge where they can whitewash their checkered pasts, what company--ANY company--is going to resist the temptation to pretty up their resume?

Jul. 19 2014 05:51 PM

This was a very disappointing episode from NTC, completely one-sided and essentially coming out in support for an absurd decision by the European courts.

For a show that claims to provide listeners a better understanding of how technology has affected our lives, your understanding of technology is pretty limited. Do better research, and provide more well rounded views on subjects you cover.

The least you can do is make an episode that presents the other side, and interview people like Jeff Jarvis who can eloquently explain why this decision can hamper free speech.

Jul. 03 2014 05:27 PM
Larry Fine from Brooklyn

I have been a subscriber to New Tech City since episode one, since the very first show you have ever done. I have donated to WNYC every year during that entire span. After listening to this episode, I deleted every NTC podcast from my tablet, unsubscribed, and after I stopped swearing under my breath and calmed down a bit, sat down to write this comment.

I have never been so offended by WNYC-produced content in my life.

The one-sided, biased, unfair, oversimplified, and frankly ignorant treatment of this issue was appalling. You had zero people on your show to speak up against censorship. You had zero people giving a voice to the value of freedom of speech. You had zero people representing the value of remembering. You gave no shrift whatsoever to those who would be hurt by the new censorship regime the Europeans have invented for themselves. What of the employer you mentioned, who does not want to hire a thief?

Your endorsement of the censors' position is disgusting. You allowed them to go unchallenged when making patently absurd claims about how Google does, or should, handle censorship requests. Manoush herself made just crazy counter-factual assertions about the cost and manpower required to handle such requests (copyright requests are almost entirely automated, other intellectual property requests are likewise mostly handled by code, not humans). The idea that "hey, Google is a big company, so they should HIRE HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE to satisfy vague requests from would-be censors" reeks of 1984 type thinking. Just idly proposing that a company (to whom you likely pay nothing at all) should spend hundreds of millions of dollars to satisfy the censorship whims of former debauched coeds is so hopelessly elitist that I am shocked to find such a view represented on NPR at all.

The idea espoused by one guest that this isn't so bad, because Europeans can simply use the American version of is entirely backwards. The same guest even asserts that we shouldn't call censorship censorship because the Americans don't do it too. He then immediately goes on to propose that the USA follow the European model! And you let this obviously tortured logic go unchallenged!

I am disappointed in you, New Tech City. I am disappointed in WNYC. I will not be back.

Jul. 02 2014 02:49 PM

Thanks for the example gdl. Get in touch with us if you want to share more about it for a potential follow up story. Obviously we would do it in a way that doesn't draw additional unnecessary attention to the quote. newtechcity at

Jun. 26 2014 08:45 PM

"where do I stand" ?! !!? (re ..The Right to be Forgotten)

please, grant me that right! it cannot come soon enough to the U.S., for me!

since its inception.. 1996? or thereabouts, any search for my name has resulted in, within the first 1-3 'hits', a 1981-related quote (commenting on me, as a child) appears. it is inaccurate. it is embarrassing. it is destructive.

I have written to the publication, in question (a once-newspaper, now, only in online form); I have written to the editor in chief; I have written to the author (now deceased) to NO avail.

the ruling may not arrive in the U.S. while it can me in my lifetime- but I will enthusiastically support any voting towards that end !

Jun. 25 2014 08:05 AM

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