The Future of Journalism

In the past decade several hundred newspapers in Europe have ceased publication; indeed there are probably several hundred closing each year. Almost all traditional newspapers maintain archives, while they are still publishing, it is less clear as to what happens to these archives once they cease publication.

The European Court of Justice delivered a curious judgement this week, defining Google as a ‘data collector’ under the 1995 Data Protection directive and requiring Google to remove links to newspaper articles and other web pages that might cause embarrassment. Less than 24 hours later there is now a queue of requests to Google and presumably other websites demanding the new European individual’s ‘right to be forgotten’. This right does not exist in the 1995 directive although it is practiced in a limited way in both France droit à l’oubli and the UK insofar as criminal records can be erased once the sentence has been served, but this does not impact the original archives.

One can easily understand that many of us might want embarrassing photos or posts or other long-past crimes or misdemeanours to be removed from online publications. But it is not realistic to require online aggregators and news sites to delete these on request. As the Advocate General, who has now been over-ruled by the full European Court of Justice, stated “the development of the internet into a comprehensive global stock of information which is universally accessible and searchable was not foreseen by the Community legislator”.

Vice-President Viviane Reding, in charge of both Justice and Communication in the European Commission, welcomed the court’s decision, saying it was a clear victory for the protection of the personal data of Europeans. “The ruling confirms the need to bring today’s data protection rules from the ‘digital stone age’ into today’s modern computing world,” she said in a post on Facebook. It is doubtful if Facebook agrees.

In March, the European Parliament approved a new Data Retention directive or law that includes an explicit right to be forgotten. The European Council has still to sign-off on this directive.

These three straws in the wind from the Court, the Commission and the Parliament pose a major threat to press freedom if they go forward to allow individuals to demand that lawful information in a news archive be hidden.

Journalists, journalist unions, editors and publishers need to be vigilant and active in the months to come if they are to reverse the current direction in which the EU institutions appear to be heading.

Julian Oliver, 16 May 2014

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