A new bill introduced by Iowa Sen. Zach Nunn, R-Altoona, would require the “removal of internet content upon request” under the title “The Right to Be Forgotten” Act, a phrase associated with the “right to erasure” that gives European Union citizens the power to demand certain data about them be deleted from company servers. 

The Iowa bill, SF 2351, would allow an individual to request any internet search engine to remove “information related to an individual that is inaccurate, irrelevant, inadequate or excessive.”

“Right to Erasure” hit the global airwaves during the 2018 implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation by the European Union. Under the law, EU citizens have a limited right to request of any company the erasure of relevant data held by the individual within 30 days. (The EU’s Information Commissioner’s Office has a complete breakdown online of when the right to erasure applies to an individual case, and when the right does not apply, such as “archiving purposes in the public interest” or in legal claims or obligations.)

The proposed Iowa law differs by allowing an individual to make specific requests to an internet search engine, which indexes millions of pages that may contain original posts (such as social media) or posts that contain copies (social media posts containing other post screenshots, blogs, news reports, memes and other internet media). The bill requires the search engine to complete the removal within 30 days after the initial request.

“What this bill aims to do is say if it’s not part of the public discourse and it’s your information, and it’s not a public record, then you as an individual should have the ability to basically reclaim your life,” Nunn told the Business Record.

The bill was partially inspired by the viral reaction to Iowan Carson King’s million-dollar fundraiser for a children’s hospital in September 2019, and the equally viral debate after inappropriate tweets King had made as a teenager were discovered by a Des Moines Register reporter (whose own inappropriate tweets were discovered by other Twitter users). 

By targeting search engines, Nunn said the bill will address posts in which a user’s original post was copied and distributed beyond the social media account they have control over.

Similar laws have been proposed in New York and New Mexico, and both have been pulled from consideration, said Alanah Mitchell, associate professor of information systems at Drake University. 

“In order for a bill like this to be successful, it would have to be extremely clear about authorship, it would have to be clear about the data you’re trying to remove and why,” Alannah said. “That’s probably why those previous bills haven’t made it that far.” 

Part of the problem in drafting legislation is whether internet search engines should be considered publishers who prioritize information for a user’s view through the algorithm. 

“These laws are treating search engines as publishers, which doesn’t exactly feel right,” said Matthew Mitchell (no relation to Alanah Mitchell), associate professor of international business and strategy at Drake University.

The Iowa bill defines eligible content for removal as “inaccurate, irrelevant, inadequate or excessive” information related to the individual, or information that has had a “significant lapse in time from its first publication.” The bill excludes criminal convictions, litigation related to a violent crime or “a matter that is of significant current public interest.” 

“As soon as something goes viral, then it’s in the public domain and you have intense public interest,” Matthew said. “I’m not sure that once that information is screen-grabbed and then repost, [that] you have control of it at that point.” 

Nunn is seeking feedback from Iowa tech companies over the bill. 

“This is an opening dialogue. I do want to hear back from tech companies, and this is where we start,” Nunn said. “If we can’t get anything done at the federal level, I think the states are a really good place to start this. Iowa is a small enough place that you can have a very outsized impact on the national dialogue.”  

“We’re experimenting … and that’s going to resonate with the innovators,” Matthew said. “It’s not going to be perfect. We’ve got to put it out there and see how it applies to different cultural context. We’ve learned a ton from GDPR and how to apply it to California, and that’s setting the bellwether for the rest of the country. This is just another brick in that wall of understanding how we do this in the U.S. context.” 

“Without [doing] anything, you abrogate your leadership responsibility as a legislator to these companies, and that’s not a great thing either,” he added.