Should there be a "right to be forgotten" online?

Americans have virtually no privacy online and need to recognize that their Internet activities cannot be scrubbed, cyber-privacy experts warned this week.

"Google is history," said University of Pennsylvania Law professor Anita Allen, author of "Unpopular Privacy: What We Must Hide," at a panel convened in New York City by the Penn law school.

Allen went on to say there is now no "human right to be forgotten."

"The idea that at some point, facts about us should be left to the dustbin of history," she said. "And not so easily retrievable." Allen echoed Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt's suggestion that there should be a "delete button" that allows people to erase embarrassing online activity.

"I do think the world was a little bit more comfortable when we knew we could count on our friends and our relatives and our communities literally forgetting," she said. "But now, you just type in the name, and then all that history of embarrassing events come up again."

Lisa Sotto, a partner at Hunton & Williams LLP and chair of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee, said that any move toward allowing people to delete their online lives has to be considered in the context of the First Amendment.

"It's a laudable concept, but the problem is how in the world do you operationalize this?" she said. "Because data is propagated and disseminated in so many different ways. And if I post something about Anita, why is it Anita's right to then be able to delete that data? Who's to say whether it is accurate or inaccurate? So it's a very tough issue."

There are a handful of statutes that allow people to restrict the flow of some information online, but the United States does not have a comprehensive cyber-privacy law. There was a move toward establishing one in the early 2000s, but it fell by the wayside in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

"U.S. privacy law is really comprised of a patchwork quilt of laws," said Sotto. "We have laws that govern financial privacy, health privacy, the privacy of children's data where those kids are under 13, for example. So we do have this patchwork quilt of regulation. We have literally hundreds of laws if we take into consideration both the federal corpus of laws and state laws as well. In Europe, and in many other jurisdictions overseas, there is one privacy law for the country - an omnibus privacy law a comprehensive law that covers privacy at large."

recent poll from the University of Southern California's Center for the Digital Future found that 77 percent of people over 35 years old - and 70 percent of those 18-34 - believe no one should have access to their personal data or web behavior. But experts stressed that Americans live in an era of evolving conceptions of privacy - and one in which data is big business.

"We're living in the age of revelation in which everything comes to light, and we're also living in an age of a great privacy giveaway," said Allen. "We're giving away vast quantities of information about ourselves in order to reap the benefits of sharing and communication." 

"So in this context, do people still care about privacy? I think they do," she continued. "But I think they are redefining privacy, and they're narrowing the scope of the privacy that they care about." 

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration is poised to back the FBI in making it easier to wiretap communication on the Internet - a proposal online privacy advocates say could make data less secure. Allen said the move is a natural extension of law that now allows the government to monitor phone conversations with a warrant and screen email traffic.

"Most people are never directly aware of it and it doesn't effect their everyday life, but in a society in which we have respect for civil liberties, I think we have to be mindful of what's happening and have a government that's accountable to people for what's going on," said Allen. 

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