Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Archivists in France Fight a Privacy Initiative

One of the European Union’s measures would grant Internet users a “right to be forgotten,” letting them delete damaging references to themselves in search engines, or drunken party photos from social networks. But a group of French archivists, the people whose job it is to keep society’s records, is asking: What about our collective right to keep a record even of some things that others might prefer to forget?

The archivists and their counteroffensive might seem out of step, as concern grows about American surveillance of Internet traffic around the world. But the archivists say the right to be forgotten, as it has become known, could complicate the collection and digitization of mundane public documents — birth reports, death notices, real estate transactions and the like — that form a first draft of history.

“Today, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter — this is the correspondence of the 21st century,” said Jean-Philippe Legois, president of the Association of French Archivists, which has around 1,700 members. “If we want to understand the society of today in the future, we have to keep certain traces.”

The group represents a wide swath of professionals who specialize in preserving and cataloging documents from institutions as diverse as town halls or museums. Still, supporters of the French campaign acknowledged the growing concern about digital privacy, after the disclosure of the extensive United States intelligence project known as Prism to mine data from Internet companies for security purposes.

To try to persuade European Union lawmakers to drop or soften the proposed rules on digital privacy, the French archivists introduced a petition, circulated to their counterparts in other countries. The group says the petition has received almost 50,000 signatures, which it will present to the European Parliament.

The group also commissioned advertising posters underlining the threat it sees. One shows a metaphorical image of demonstrators marching through Paris, their faces hidden by digitally appended clown masks. It asks: “Without a name, does individual commitment still have the same meaning?”

The archivists know that their influence is limited as the Parliament is lobbied by myriad Internet companies, governments and other organizations, which have submitted about 4,000 amendments to the proposed law for the European Union’s 27 member states. This month, several proposals were softened, including the plan to require companies to obtain “explicit” consent from users to collect and process their data, though the United States surveillance revelations could renew the push for tougher rules.

The right to be forgotten is one of the most contentious items.

The European Commission has drawn support from consumer organizations and privacy advocates, but the archivists have received backing from other European professionals who rely on record-keeping, including genealogists and history professors.

Advocates of the right to be forgotten say it is unrealistic to expect Internet companies like Google and Facebook, which collect huge amounts of data on their users in order to direct relevant advertising to them, to put safeguards in place without stricter regulations.

European Union lawmakers want to establish two separate, but related, digital privacy rules. One would guarantee Internet users the right to delete pictures, writings and other data on social networks and other online forums. In theory, this is already permitted, but regulators say removal can be cumbersome and deleted material often lingers in search engines and elsewhere.

Under the proposal, search engines would have to remove the material immediately. Internet companies balk at that. They say that they generally favor giving people control over material they have posted themselves, but oppose letting Internet users demand that search engines and other sites remove information about them that has been posted by others, perhaps including official documents.

The principle of a right to be forgotten is being tested under existing laws in Spain, where the government has ordered Google to remove unflattering references to dozens of individuals who filed complaints with the Spanish Data Protection Agency. Google has refused, insisting that only publishers or courts, not individuals or search engines, should have the power to remove information, assuming that it was legally published.

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