Privacy watchdogs across Asia may push for 'right to be forgotten' online

City commissioner sees signs of a regional push for an EU-style 'right to be forgotten' online

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 December, 2014, 2:17am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 December, 2014, 9:31am

Privacy watchdogs across the Asia-Pacific region are holding out the possibility of taking collective action to press for individuals' "right to be forgotten" after what made them news becomes outdated, according to Hong Kong's privacy commissioner.

Allan Chiang Yam-wang also downplayed concerns that allowing people to ask for links on search engines to be deleted would inhibit freedom of information and erase history.

He urged critics of such a mandate to keep an "open mind" and to discuss the issue more constructively.

"While no concrete action has been contemplated, the possibility of further collective action is not ruled out either," Chiang wrote in a blog post. Seeking talks with search providers was one possible step, he told the Post.

In May, the European Union's top court affirmed the rights of individuals to ask search giant Google to remove links to data about them that was inadequate, irrelevant, outdated or excessive for its purpose. The European Court of Justice's decision awaits passage into European law.

The EU has also issued guidelines on what search engines must consider before entertaining a request, such as whether the person is a public figure and whether the information is about his work rather than private life.

Chiang, who had been pushing for Hong Kong to apply the same right, said yesterday that the alarm bells were "overblown", and that "the right to be forgotten is not absolute".

He said such a right merely allowed a person to get his name delisted from search results, while the source information remained untouched in cyberspace. Using non-EU versions of a search engine could also circumvent the ruling, he said.

Google has called the EU ruling a disappointment, while critics have suggested such a mandate was akin to rewriting history and letting public figures "whitewash" information.

Chiang disagreed, citing figures at a recent regional forum that showed 90 per cent of the 190,000 requests to Google since the court decision were "no-brainers".

He cited an example of an easily rejected request - a public official who wanted a student organisation's petition demanding his removal delisted.

Only one in 10 requests required "some fine balancing" between the right to privacy and the public's right to know, he said.

Information Technology Federation president Francis Fong Po-kiu was concerned that people with money and legal firepower could abuse the right. "In the end, [the search engine] would be forced to just delete and delete," Fong said.

Lawmaker and ex-journalist Claudia Mo Man-ching said deleting links would affect press freedom and newsgathering.