What you need to know about the “Right to be Forgotten”

So many people have compared the Internet to the Wild West, and it’s about as apt a comparison as any. There seems to be risk and opportunity at every turn, for every Cinderella story of a kid whose YouTube videos propelled him or her to superstardom (yes, Bieber, we’re looking at you), there’s an ordinary person whose brief lapse in judgement was his or her Internet demise. In a world where it is not only easy to be caught doing something dumb, but where that one mistake will follow your name around on Google forever, is it really fair to punish a person for a single error with a lifetime of terrible search results?

The European Court of Justice didn’t think so, which is why it ruled last year that search engines were required to consider granting individuals “the right to be forgotten.” What this ruling means is that if a European feels like they are suffering the consequences of search results that are no longer accurate or relevant (yes, Random European Citizen in question was wild in their youth, but now they are a completely straight-laced adult), they can petition Google to delink the no longer accurate or relevant material. So, if you type in Random European Citizen’s name, his or her past misdeed would no longer show up on an initial search. It would still be there on the Internet, but you would have to do some hardcore sleuthing to dig it up. And most employers/potential mates aren’t going to scour through ALL your search results and examine every inch of your past. So those who were once being harmed by search results that did not accurately reflect their current lives would have the opportunity to be free and clear in all the ways that count.

As Google reports, since May of 2014, Google has received almost 300,000 requests to remove over a million URLS in Europe. The search engine has granted about 41% of these requests. Sites most impacted include (surprise surprise) Facebook, YouTube, Google Plus, Google Groups, and Twitter. Google also gives examples of the types of requests they have received and whether or not they granted those requests for link removal. In Belgium, an individual was convicted of a serious crime within the last five years, but the conviction was quashed on appeal, and so Google agreed to remove an article about the incident from the individual’s search results. Meanwhile, in Austria, a couple accused of business fraud asked Google to remove articles about the crime, but Google decided not to remove the pages from search results.

As The New York Times reports, several countries in Latin America and Asia are now considering passing delinking laws, and this kind of lawmaking has the potential to become an international phenomenon. With the prospect of delinking legislation sweeping the globe, debate is hot about “The Right to Be Forgotten.” There are those that argue that this kind of lawmaking interferes with our right as citizens to access public information. There is also a larger concern that if a link is delinked in one country, laws could be put in place to make this delinking effective worldwide.

“If we’re asking Google to comply in every version of Google worldwide, it becomes very hard to say where we want Google to draw the line,” Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, explained to The New York Times. “It’s a race to the bottom. Governments all around the world will immediately say, ‘Great, we’ll ask for things to be deleted worldwide.’”

Here’s what it comes down to — do we need to adjust privacy laws as they affect the Internet in an era where people have never been more public and information has never been more accessible or do we need to maintain the sanctity of the public record and freedom of speech? There are no easy answers (because it’s the Internet, of course everything is ethically complicated and morally grey) but we are the ones who are living in this 21st century Wild West, and so even if we never end up making up our minds about this particularly thorny problem, it’s a problem we need to be wrestling with, as responsible and aware citizens of this brave new world.

(Image via Focus Features.)

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