The Conflict of Access and Privacy in the Right to Be Forgotten

I have been interested in researching aspects of privacy in digital libraries over the past few years. Again and again, I am struck with the inherent clash between access and privacy in certain scenarios for practitioners. I think especially as privacy and access are two important elements in librarianship that we hold dear- Both concepts are prominent in ALA’s Code of Ethics, but what happens when access and privacy collide? 

Access vs. privacy with dog tug of war
Adapted from “Tug ‘o War” by WilliamMarlow is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Right to be Forgotten is centered on the request for the removal of information from a search engine result and not from the original source (digital library, etc.), though the desire for erasure/removal by an individual in either case is ultimately the same. And culturally, this topic becomes even more interesting when we think about how privacy is valued as a concept and entity in the court of law. The EU and the US have been the most discussed and contrasted, with EU providing its citizens with a way to “be forgotten” in the GDPR, while the US has not. Most often, the contrast in the US has centered around the conflict between the RTBF and the First Amendment. (A great paper on this topic- The European right to be forgotten: A challenge to the United States Constitution’s First Amendment and to professional public relations ethics by Kristie Byrum, 2016)

I have been most interested recently in how practitioners make decisions when faced with an inquiry that pushes the question of access over privacy (or vice versa). For digital librarians, this often comes in the form of a takedown request regarding a piece of personal information (such as a personal name) from a digital item in one of a digital collection. In a recent study with Kelley Rowan and Rebecca Bakker from Florida International University, we asked respondents to indicate which value they thought was more important. It was interesting to see that roughly half of the respondents gave privacy and access equal ratings (figure 2), with access slightly winning out over privacy from the remainder of respondents. And while this example is around digital libraries, I believe there are instances of this kind of dilemma of access versus privacy in each area of the library.

Access vs. privacy table
From “Managing Privacy: A Survey of Practices in Digital Archives and Libraries”

Making privacy decisions is difficult enough, and further weighing these decisions against benefits of access complicates matters. And when a library does not have institutional policies to help guide these kinds of scenarios and decisions, a practitioner may then rely on a personal framework and beliefs to help them decide one way or another. Ultimately, a decision will need to be made that favors privacy over access or vice versa, and at some point the scale must tip one way or the other. It is impossible to truly weigh access and privacy as equal entites.

The Right to be Forgotten continues to fascinate me as it churns through various iterations in courts and interpretations in different societies. We have much more work ahead to further define and refine these kinds of conversations and create more equitable and fair practices locally.

AuthorVirginia Dressler

Virginia Dressler is the Digital Projects Librarian at Kent State University. Her specialty areas are project management and digitization, working primarily with the university’s unique collections. She holds a Master's of Library and Information Science from Kent State University (2007), a Master's of the Arts in Art Gallery and Museum Studies from the University of Leeds (2003) and a certificate in advanced librarianship (digital libraries) from Kent State University (2014). Her research areas include privacy in digital collections and the Right to be Forgotten. She is author of Framing Privacy in Digital Collections with Ethical Decision Making (Morgan & Claypool, 2018).