Weekly reads from CJR for October 7, 2021

Linda Kinstler on the right to be forgotten

In precise terms, the “right to be forgotten” does not exist. But according to European law, there is a Right to Erasure, which allows people to request that publishers delete or de-index their data from the internet, so long as the information is no longer relevant or in the public interest. As Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, has observed, that rule comes from the French “‘le droit à l’oubli’—or the ‘right of oblivion’—a right that allows a convicted criminal who has served his time and been rehabilitated to object to the publication of the facts of his conviction and incarceration.” Talk of the “right to be forgotten” often assumes that a similar provision could never take hold in the United States. But as Linda Kinstler writes, “there are good reasons to suspect it already has.”

In reporting on how American newsrooms handle requests that articles be removed from their online archives, Kinstler traces connections between past and present, along the blurry line between legal and moral justice. The internet has made it difficult for us to move on from old stories, even disproved ones; the digitization of news meant “all kinds of minor crimes, arrests, and misdemeanors—even bad blind dates—were now turning up in people’s search results.” Recently, and especially in light of protests for racial justice that called out journalism’s tendency to lean on police accounts without corroboration, editors have been more willing to take down or de-index certain articles. Ultimately, the dilemmas that arise in the decision-making process reveal the ethical complications of a post-print press—and a society’s willingness to forgive and forget. “I just couldn’t take it anymore—we were harming people by standing on tradition,” Chris Quinn, the editor of and the Plain Dealer, who started a right-to-be-forgotten project in 2018, told Kinstler. “We’re trying to restore the order that existed before the internet.” —Betsy Morais, managing editor


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