European-wide regulations to provide for the erasure of personal details stored online will not provide an absolute right to be forgotten.  This was the clear warning of speakers at a conference on policy priorities for social media.

Facebook’s European director of policy Richard Allan told the Westminster eForum (10.7.2013) that although Facebook users had the right to delete their own profile it was not possible to erase all associated material held about an individual by other data controllers.

Lawyers representing social media companies urged the European Union to be much clearer in how it was proposing to enforce “a right to be forgotten”. 

Hazel Grant, a commercial lawyer and partner in Bristows, said the European proposal for a right of erasure of data when consent was withdrawn could not provide an absolute right to be forgotten.  The data controller concerned would have an obligation to inform third parties and ask them to erase data unless the cost was disproportionate but there was no guarantee that could be done.

“If the European Union wants to introduce a right to be forgotten it needs to be much clearer...It cannot be delivered entirely because a complete right to be forgotten would destroy history...Business needs to know how this will work”.


Kristin Brewe, director of marketing and communication at the Internet Advertising Bureau, said she recognised that the industry had to ensure that people felt safe on line and had some control over how long an online posting might last.  There had to be a right to edit material which people posted in their youth.


Richard Allan said Facebook accepted that individuals had a right to say to any entity which held personal data about them that they wanted this material to be deleted.


“We are happy with it.  You can remove your data from Facebook. It is a myth to say this isn’t possible.  Our lawyers are happy with it – it can be done.


“But it is more difficult when it comes to associated material and when someone wants to go further and wants other entities to delete other information posted by others about an individual.


“If I put my personal data on line I can ask for it to be deleted...but Facebook would feel uncomfortable to be asked to take action against other data controllers, to start policing other data controllers.”


When it came to dealing with problems over the posting of potentially offensive material, Allan said millions of people were publishing on line every day and in fact remarkably little was legally actionable.


There had not been a great number of defamation cases and most online postings were not defamatory; people should be free to be offensive within the law. He was encouraged by the advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions that postings would only be actionable and considered illegal where there was a sustained campaign of harassment or threat of violence.


Allan was asked how Facebook was responding to complaints from advertisers who found their advertisements were appearing alongside pages containing grossly offensive material.


He said that advertisements on Facebook were directed to the individual user, not to the content of the page being looked at.  Therefore if people had looked at pages which contained offensive material, then mainstream advertisements would have followed them.


Facebook was addressing the problem and intended in future to narrow down the number of pages where advertisements are shown. “Most advertisements will be following you but we will block things on certain pages so that advertising brands can feel confident.  What we are talking about is offensive but not illegal content.”